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For the carioca in need of grains in bulk, cheap party decorations, live animals and herbs for the ritual baths practiced in Afro-Brazilian faiths, the Mercadão de Madureira offers one-stop shopping.

Madureira is a good two-hour bus ride from tourist-zone Ipanema and is tucked behind hills far from the ocean breeze, which means the neighborhood heats up even more than already steamy Rio. In the heart of Rio’s working-class north zone, the Mercadão is where cariocas who count every real go to comparison-shop and haggle for the best deals in the city limits. Remember that the minimum wage in Rio is less than 800 reais (about US$330) per month, and a middle-class family is defined as earning above US$450 per month. That means the 100-real meals of Ipanema are hardly palatable for the so-called “new middle class.” Despite the cheery BRIC emerging-economy narrative and the olho grande (“big eye,” or greed) of investors looking for a new consumer market, this sector of Brazilian society can be better understood as the working poor.

Chilies at the Mercadão de Madureira, photo by Nadia SussmanThe area has functioned as a marketplace for a century and had to be built anew after it burned to the ground in 2000. Set aside half a day to stroll the two floors of the market; toys, party supplies and costumes are downstairs, while edibles are upstairs. You can then take your odds and ends of foodstuffs to the nearby Parque de Madureira. The park was a grassy area of electrical towers next to a noisy train line and was turned by the current mayor into a skate park and leisure zone (still with a noisy train). The result is not Rio’s most beautiful green space but certainly one of its most textured and lively.

A guide to the vendors:

Toca do Caçador, store 220/222
At this shop, you can take home a new pet – or dinner. Chickens, parakeets, goats, ducks, pigeons, quail and guinea pigs (porquinho da Índia, “little Indian pigs”) all squawk and stink a little here. The store also delivers, should you be interested in buying in bulk (or buying a goat). Take note of the carranca statue, whose red-rimmed eyes and fangs are meant to scare off olho grande.

Mercadão de Madureira statuary, photo by Nadia SussmanMercadão de ervas
On the far left aisle of the Mercadão just past the main entrance, in the lane exclusive to herb sellers, you’ll hear vendors shout things like Fala meu rei! (“Talk to me, my king!”). That’s that charming carioca tendency to be absurdly friendly to strangers, as has been parodied by the popular Porta dos Fundos YouTube comedy troupe in “My Prince.” Things that don’t look edible, like lily pads, are often, as booth 5 vendor Dadá says, “a macumba thing.” Take note that the word macumba, depending on whose mouth it comes from, can be either deeply affectionate or disdainful. Brazil’s most prominent Afro-Brazilian faiths are umbanda and candomblé, and you’ll see the delightful statues and full white outfits and beaded headdresses across the mercadão. In the herb market, look for jenipapo, a fruit used to make body paint, and the pungent seasonings of Vó Celia. The 83-year-old sells her trademark pots of spices, which includes spicy mint, rosemary, celery, basil and leeks, in box 22.

Rio Flora, store 201
A no-frills booth of bulk teas and spices (purchasing by weight is called “a granel”). The dried artichoke is said to be used for digestive health, and we recommend taking the pimenta rosa (pink peppercorns) and pimenta caiena (cayenne pepper) home.

Casa Trianca, stores 246, 247 and 248
A Portuguese-influenced emporium with pungent strips of bacalhau (salt cod) and alarmingly cheap liquor, such as a US$3 coconut-flavored aguardente (sugarcane alcohol). Try the Portuguese favorite, vinho verde (green wine), and sample candied fruits, like crystallized pumpkin and lime peels.

Casa Angélica at the Mercadão de Madureira, photo by Nadia SussmanCasa Angélica, store 236/238
Welcome to Candyland. We recommend buying gummy worms and caramels in bulk, though more uniquely Brazilian options would be queijadinha (a coconut macaroon, more or less) and quindim, a coconut custard sweet.

HB Cariocas Bebidas Finas, store 232
A liquor superstore. We were most impressed with the beer shelf, which had our Brazilian artisanal favorites, Sputnik Golden Ale and Colorado Vixnu IPA.

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Nadia Sussman

Published on April 10, 2014

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