The Mango Frango
by Chef Boy Ari
This is Chef Boy Ari, reporting from Brazil. Specifically, I'm reporting from a hammock, surrounded by the sounds of singing voices and the sound of rain falling on the tin roof of a house in the middle of the jungle in the coastal hills of Bahia, a state in the northeast of Brazil. I'm with a group of University of Montana students who, believe it or not, have chosen to join me on a tour of Brazilian agricultural communities that practice polyculture.
Polyculture is a technique by which a diversity of crops are grown together to form an agricultural system that functions like an ecosystem. Here in the Mata Atlantica, or coastal rainforest, these agriculture systems can include trees like palm, chocolate, coffee, banana, papaya and mango. This week's story begins, sort of, with mango trees.
"There is nothing I would rather do at 5:30 a.m.," said Gerard, three days ago, gushing with excitement, "than kill a chicken. And I can't wait to eat him." At this point, Gerard and company had been in Brazil less than 24 hours.
As he was telling me this, I heard a loud "thump" as another mango crashed to earth.This is a sound we hear often - so often it quickly became white noise, like the sound of traffic in a big city. The mangos fall so fast that we can't possibly eat them all, so we bring them by the wheelbarrow load to the chickens. In Brazil, chickens are called "frango."
I have a theory that this mango diet has a positive effect on the taste of the chicken meat. But it's tough to tell for sure, because these Brazilians have methods for cooking their frango that could make a factory farmed Frank Purdue or Tyson piece-of-crap chicken taste good. Still, my first rule of food is that your final product can only be as good as your raw ingredients, and these mango-fattened chickens were a great way to start.
As I contemplated this food theory, I heard another "thump."
Our friend Marcia removed the skin of Gerard's frango, cut it into pieces and left it soaking in water for about an hour.I marveled at how dark the dark meat was, as dark as any other kind of red meat. There was more than just mangos in that dark flesh. They also were fed the leaves of the wandering Jew plant to increase egg production, as well as corn, manioc leaves and other leaves, and kitchen scraps.
Marcia drained the water and squeezed lime on top of the chicken parts and let it sit for 15 minutes before draining the lime and rinsing the meat again with water. Then she put the chicken into the following marinade:
One tablespoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon salt, 7 tablespoons white wine, ½ tablespoon cumin, 1 tablespoon oregano, 1 big onion, chopped, and a bunch of chopped basil and cilantro. She let this sit for a couple of hours.
Then she added a half-quart of water, 3 tablespoons tomato paste and 4 bay leaves and cooked over medium heat.
Corinha walked into the kitchen, wearing a neon green sarong covered in stick fish. "Chef Boy Ari," she said, "am I going to get to shake my 'boom-boom' before I get out of Brazil?"
"Thump." Another mango hit the earth.
I assured Corinha that there would be multiple opportunities to shake her "boom-boom" - Brazilian for ass - before this trip is over.
When the chicken was almost falling-apart tender, Marcia added the vegetables: carrots, okra, yam, potato and aipim - also known as manioc root, which is tough to get in the United States, but it doesn't ("thump!") really matter which veggies you use, as long as they are good. Cook until the veggies are done, and then serve.
This was some of the best chicken I've ever experienced, and I've experienced plenty.
A few days later, another Brazilian chef, Debora, showed us yet another great way to cook chicken. This chicken wasn't mango-fattened, but it was still a pretty good bird, who had spent its life running around and digging in the dirt, like chickens will do if given their druthers. She made a marinade of mashed garlic, minced cilantro, black pepper, salt, and white wine, marinated the chicken for 24 hours, and then pan-fried the chicken in oil. When it was well cooked, she shredded the chicken, added the rest of the marinade to the pan and cooked it a little more.
One of the things you hear me say a lot in Brazil when I sit down to eat is "tem pimenta?" (Is there pepper?), at which point the obliging host or hostess brings a jar to the table. There are many ways to make pimenta. One of them is as follows: mash some small chili peppers in a mortar and pestle with a little salt. Mix it with chopped onion, and lime juice. And that's it.
So now, when the rooster crows at the break of dawn, and it's pissing you off because you stayed up too late playing samba music and drinking "caipiringas," all you have to do is send someone like Gerard to take care of the bird. And when he does, now you have options.