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A month-long bar food festival in Belo Horizonte means ambitious snacks and cold beer.
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil — So what do you get when you hold a month-long bar food festival in a city where people’s primary form of entertainment is already bar-hopping? Extra tables jammed into crowded spaces, even more tables spilling off sidewalks onto the streets, tables everywhere, and still, everyone waiting for tables.
Here’s how Brazil’s big cities divided up the riches: Rio got the beaches, Sao Paulo got the culture, Brasilia got the government and Salvador got history and one heck of a Carnival. Belo Horizonte, the 2.5 million person capital of Minas Gerais, got bars. It lacks the tourist numbers of other cities, and there's a relaxed, informal feel. “You can get together with friends without having to get all dressed up,” said Ivana Magalhaes, a 45-year-old bar fan. “You can go in flip-flops and shorts.”
The visitors do come, however, for Comida di Buteco, the rustically misspelled name of the festival that translates simply as “Bar Food.”
The contest, which turns 10 this year, sends visitors and locals scurrying about to the 41 chosen bars, each one featuring a specially created appetizer that goes for under $10. But the crowds can get bad; getting in without a wait after 6 p.m. is often impossible. Magalhaes and eight or so work colleagues had to give up on two of the five bars they had targeted for a grand tour (with rented van and driver) that started at 11 a.m.
At festively painted Agosto Butiquim, they finally found a table — or more accurately, black plastic stools in a circle on the sparsely trafficked street outside — and ordered Agosto’s featured dish: lightly battered, piping hot eggplant; croquettes of cornmeal filled with taioba leaf; and cubes of marinated meat.
The festival, which ends with a 30,000-person, weekend-long party from May 22 to May 24, was created by Eduardo Maya, a gastronome, cooking teacher and food industry consultant. Maya saw an opportunity to celebrate bar culture but refine the traditional dishes served in Belo Horizonte’s bars. “Since bars, not beaches, are what we have, why not improve the food?” he said. “Once you put bar snacks under the magnifying glass, you saw that they were all the same.”
That is no longer true. Creativity now abounds, from trout with fried sweet potato at Bar do Careca to ribs with guava sauce at Bar do Doca — the successful recipes become fixtures on each bar’s menu. Each year, there is a required ingredient, usually a traditional element of Minas Gerais’ regional cuisine.This year dishes had to include a leafy vegetable, either kale, taioba or mustard greens.