Don't stare at the guns.
This is the advice I receive upon arriving at the Comida de Favela food festival in Rio de Janeiro. But it's hard to ignore the teenager in board shorts poised with what looks like a semi-automatic rifle cradled in his arms, lurking on the side of the road.
In the labyrinthine shanty complex of Maré, where rival drug gangs rule the sight is not uncommon. However it didn't put off the organisers from arranging an ambitious food celebration in one of Rio's most troubled favelas.
"If we wait for peace in the war, we won't do anything," says Fernanda* from Redes da Maré, the NGO promoting the festival.
The first event of its kind, Comida de Favela offers cash prizes of 800 to 3,000 Brazilian real (between USD $200 and 790) to the three restaurants with the most popular entries, judged by customer votes over the course of a month.
"In favelas, we have to be creative," Fernanda adds.
Maré, home to 130,000 people, is a collection of 16 crude but distinct communities, carved into territories divided between the Pure Third Command (Terceiro Comando Puro), the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), and the Friends of Friends (Amigos dos Amigos)—three competing gang factions. The tension was described as a civil war last year when the army deployed more than 2,500 troops to occupy the complex for 12 months ahead of the World Cup.
And as a result of regular shoot-outs, there is little movement between the communities that make up the neighbourhood. This, Fernanda says, was one of the focuses of the food festival. With 16 establishments taking part across the divides, both locals and outsiders have a reason to get to know different parts of the favela beyond gang boundaries, promoting a kind of integration that has so far been difficult to achieve.
Two free buses—one from the affluent south zone and another from the north of the city—were provided at the weekends to encourage visitors. But of the 900 people visiting the festival during its first week, the majority came from within the favela.
"Maré is very big," says Fernanda. "People here don't know their own community. Our focus is on local work."
My first stop is Bar da Marilda, close to the entrance of Vila do João in the south of Maré. Marilda Vieira Alves Silva, a nimble and efficient 57-year-old, swiftly sits me at a covered plastic table before disappearing into her modest kitchen to serve up slow-cooked oxtail, boiled —a staple root popular all over Brazil—and watercress. The tasty, popular weekend dish had been modified for the festival. Like elsewhere in Brazil, such a meal would normally come in generous portions—it could serve a family. But the festival required just a sample for the entry.
"They had to understand that we didn't want a meal big enough for three people, like you would normally get here," explains Fernanda. "It's a simple meal, a taster meal."
After serving the food, Silva coyly hangs back at the door of the kitchen beneath the festival bunting to watch for my reaction. She says the oxtail, a recipe handed down from her grandmother to her mother before her, had already been a hit on Fridays and Saturdays but thanks to the Comida de Favela, she had received many visitors from outside of Maré as well as within the community.
On the Saturday I visit, there are several regulars enjoying the dish with a cold beer. When I ask what she thinks of the event, her eyes twinkle.
"I think it's wonderful. I'm hoping that people continue coming here even after the festival—this is the theory, right?—and get rid of the idea that there is nothing good inside the community," says Silva. "There is violence in everyplace. Thank God, it has always been OK here."
Just a few doors down on Street 14, past the skulking gunman, Thiago Ferreira Rodrigues says his family-run Point do Maccarão pasta delivery service has seen business increase by around 20 percent since the start of Comida de Favela, with more customers coming to eat in instead of calling for a takeaway. His festival entry is a lamb croquette with an apple sauce.
"The culture of food in favelas is homegrown food," says Rodrigues. "Our speciality is pasta, which is arguably Italian but the flavours are very Brazilian."
With a large immigrant population, Maré has a variety of culinary traditions including those from the north and northeast of Brazil and Africa. While many entries in the festival feature typical Brazilian ingredients—like chayote, black beans, and plenty of beef—there are also unexpected contributions including a hot gourmet sushi, paella, and Mexican beans.
More than 100 restaurants applied to take part in Comida de Favela, first conceived in 2011 and sponsored by Brazilian bank Itaú's cultural funding programme, with the organisers selecting those they wished to compete. Among them is Eulina Grambola, who moved to Maré 20 years ago from the northern state of Paraiba. Her entry, chicken in a blood sauce, is a Portuguese dish also found in the northeast of Brazil
"I think the festival is good," she says, speaking outside her restaurant, Bar da Buchada. "And I'm going to win."
The favela's burgeoning gastronomy scene is becoming important to the local economy. According to a census of businesses in Maré last year, two in five establishments were in the food and drink sector. For Rodrigues, the exposure from the Comida de Favela festival is a way of growing his audience beyond the favela.
"The idea is amazing because my biggest difficulty is to take the business out of the favela," he says. "With this festival, I have. We're getting a lot of customers from outside of Maré."
And what about the image of Maré since the army occupied?
"For us who live here, we only won," adds Rodrigues. "Every process against violence is a positive evolution for us."
As the market on Street 14 through Vila do João starts to pack up, it begins to rain and scraps from the stalls stew on the pavement. The free festival bus back to Rio's south zone is ready to leave, taking a large group visiting the festival home after touring every one of the 16 restaurants.
"They'll be tired, it's a long walk to every one," says Fernanda. But it turns out that the group is enjoying their visit to Maré so much that they decide to skip the bus.
As I make my way back, I pass Silva again.
"Please, come back again," she insists, clasping my hand.