Beyond the Brazilian churrascos

March 19, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Most of the attention on Brazilian food in Chicago centers on the all-you-can-eat steakhouses, called churrascos, so diners are probably familiar with the Brazilian gauchos, who wander around the room with giant skewers of beef and offer to slice it tableside-- along with the ridiculously huge salad bars, fried bananas and polenta. But there is one Brazilian snack most of us have never tried, let alone heard of. It's a little hard to find, but worth the hunt.

Calling them fritters would be an insult, because, while these small orbs may resemble a treat from a summer fair, they are the quintessential Brazlian street food snack. They're made with love - and a lot of patience - at Sinha, the legendary Sunday brunch-only restaurant in the shadow of the United Center.

"Acarajere is made with black-eyed peas. You have to soak these for one day before. Then you have to take all those little black eyes out. It's a mess; it takes forever," said Jorgina Pereira, owner of Sinha.

The "black-eyed-free" batter is fried, and once it cools, the mini bean cakes are split open, and stuffed with a vatapa: shrimp with coconut milk and peppers. A little drizzle of homemade salsa adds a jolt of crunch and heat.

Interestingly enough, acarajere is also offered at Vermilion, in River North, which has a menu covering several bases.

"The restaurant is Indian and Latin, so we try to get the best of both worlds together and a lot of these dishes the fusion really, really works," said Maneet Chauhan, the Chef of Vermilion.

Chauhan uses black beans as a base, adding lime juice, jalapenos and peppers to a blender, combining them with onions and fresh cilantro. Her Indian side comes through in seasonings such as dried mango powder, ginger and red chili powder. In a large bowl, she combines the batter with eggs and breadcrumbs to give it some body; this will also help keep it from falling apart in the fryer. A large shrimp is embedded into the bean cake, which is then fried for just a minute or two in canola oil.

"They've got such an amazing amount of flavor, a different variety of flavor - it's finger-icking good."

Plating is a bit fancy for street food: mango-mint chutney beneath the acarajere... then some mango-pepper slaw on the side. You could use a knife and fork, but Chauhan says it's best if you use your fingers.

"That's when you get the flavor the best, when you eat it with your hands."

Vermilion is open for lunch and dinner. Sinha is only open for brunch on Sundays. Reservations highly recommended.

2018 W. Adams St.
Sundays only

10 W. Hubbard St.

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