I was invited by the Travel Channel to appear on their show Food Paradise International. The concept is pretty straightforward. Each episode’s theme is a type of food (e.g., hamburgers, Chinese, donuts) and a few restaurants are featured, with commentary by the chefs and the diners. As a diner, my part was simply to eat the food and talk about it. Perfect.
The crew was filming in various restaurants around São Paulo for a variety of episodes. I got to be part of the Spicy Foods episode, filmed at the Bahian restaurant Rota do Acarajé in the neighborhood of Santa Cecilia. The restaurant itself was actually two buildings across the street from each other. It’s one of those places that looks absolutely tiny but has more room than you think. Filled with traditional Bahian artisan crafts, it was a very cozy and charming environment.
The film crew was very friendly and kind, and one of the producers kept telling my partner and me, “I hope you like spicy food!” As we were waiting for everything to get set up, we overheard one of the producers asking one of the restaurant’s owners (and chef) to make the dish extra, extra spicy. I raised an eyebrow. Soon, I guess they were testing out the final product, because one of the owners (the chef’s husband) was cracking up at how spicy it was. I got a little nervous.
Finally they gave us our dish which was half an acarajé — a deep fried bean cake topped with okra and dried shrimp — and a shrimp and pepper risotto. It was time to film me eating. Let me point out first that I enjoy spicy food, and I have a relatively high tolerance for heat. But this risotto was scorching. I felt it at first on the tip of my tongue, and it was tolerable enough to take a few more bites, but it traveled to the back of my throat and slowly got more and more intense. I was gulping down beer as the director asked, “So how does it taste? Do you feel like you’re in hell? Would you say this is the spiciest thing you’ve ever had? Can you make some devil’s horns for me?” I did the best I could to come up with different variations of This is some spicy shit. The acarajé was a bit of relief, fortunately, and I ate up the salty dried shrimp with gusto.
Whether I took a bite of the shrimp, the rice, or the slices of pepper, it didn’t matter — it was all flaming hot.
I had a fun time filming, but to be honest I was a bit irked with their choice to make it extra spicy. First off, it struck me as rather disingenuous. The purpose of the episode is to feature the spiciest food from around the world, but if they’re asking the chef to alter the dish, then it’s a bit of false advertising. They might as well have chosen a restaurant at random and asked the chef to add on extra peppers to the plate. Secondly, as someone who enjoys spicy food, I enjoy it not because I like to feel my mouth on fire, but because I like the flavor of peppers and how they complement other ingredients. Besides peppers, the risotto also had coconut milk, dendê (red palm oil) and shrimp, but all I could taste was burning heat. The waiter actually had to take the dish away after filming because it was nearly inedible. By making the dish hotter than normal, the whole segment became less about the restaurant’s food and more about these staged extreme reactions.
But I’m not naive. I realize their ultimate goal is to make entertaining TV, and after all, the restaurant did agree to alter the dish. I’m just disappointed that I didn’t get to actually enjoy any spicy food. Maybe I should have opted for the cheese episode they filmed at Bar Astor.
After filming, my partner and I were dying and needed something to calm our mouths besides the copious amounts of beer we were currently downing. The menu actually had quite an extensive selection of dishes, but we settled on a plate of carne de sol, or cured salted beef, with fried yucca. It was simple, delicious and most importantly salty, which was just what we needed. I also ordered an amazing dessert called cocada do forno, which was sort of like a coconut flan with a toasted coconut crust on the bottom, topped with a guava sauce.
Carne de sol, mandioca, and plenty of beer.
Towards the end of the evening, the chef (and co-owner) chatted a bit with us and was very friendly. She wrote down our names and gave us a card, telling us to come back and try the original risotto dish, free of charge. We’ll be back for sure. Despite the peppers from hell, I’m glad I came.
Note: I did not receive any sort of compensation for appearing on the show, but my meal was paid for.