A cuisine that feeds the 4th largest population in the world. A culture whose cookery spans a landmass nearly as large as that of the United States. Food that flaunts itself as the best known in the world from the South American continent. A cuisine whose ancient staple food is poisonous. Poisonous?! Yes, poisonous! Dangerous, rugged, exciting, cosmopolitan, simple –this is Brazilian cuisine.
Perhaps most people are familiar with the American rendition of the Brazilian grille styled restaurant, where slender muscular waiters bearing sword-like skewers that spear various cuts of roasted meats proudly strutting around from table to table offering delicate–or not so delicate slices of their sinewy fare. While it is a shadowy image of the true cuisine –it is far from all encompassing. The expansive grasslands of the southern Brazilian states of Parana, Santo Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul are the gaucho country, committed to cattle ranching. Providing southern Brazil with a source of fresh carne for the meat laden fare is only one of the uses of this prime quality animal resource. Salted meats are dried and made into delectable appetizers or snack foods.
One dish in particular, Arroz de Carretierro (translated: Wagoner’s Rice) is quite popular with locals from all walks of life. Made of carne seca , a dried salted beef which is re-hydrated, then fried with tomatoes, sweet and hot malegueta peppers, scallions, rice, and chopped parsley, it is an authentic working man’s meal. In the earlier times of the Portuguese colonization animal hides outweighed the food products of the plentiful herd stock. But these days in a tourist rich climate,the food is the star.
In the south though, the grand showcase of Brazil was and still is Churrasco. This parade of wood fired roasts served carved directly of the cooking spit could bloat even thee most ravenous glutton. Zebu makes up 80% of Brazil’s beef supply and is the most common cow found in tropical climates. Butchering is handled differently too so that many of the cuts are unfamiliar to westerners. One such cut is the prized cupim which is cut from the hump of the zebu cow. Cupim cannot be duplicated by western steers since they lack the hump on the spine unique to the zebu. In texture it is greasy and a little bit stringy but oh so full of beefy flavor. Most of meats are variously seasoned cuts of beef more different from their texture and fat distribution than the method of spicing or kind of animal or cooking method used. Probably the most notable exception to is Linguica a sausage made of pork or a combination of beef and pork in varying degrees of piquancy.
Huge coils of the sausage are skewered to hold their wound shape and brushed with a seasoned saline like all Churrasco meats to seal in their juices during open fire and hot charcoal broiling. At the table a dipping sauce known as Molho Campanha, essentially a wine vinegar fresh salsa, enhances each bite.
But meat alone is hardly a meal. Accompanying the beefy repast is the innocuous tuber manioc. In South America there are two distinct kinds of manioc. Bitter manioc and sweet manioc or cassava. In the south of Brazil sweet manioc is used much like a potato, served mashed or far more commonly, fried.
It is in the other parts of Brazil where the bitter manioc finds its use as the staff of life. Oddly enough bitter manioc is poisonous. Somehow the indigenous Indian tribes discovered that if treated by crushing out the toxic sap then washing and roasting the remaining pulp you could grind the ensuing product into a starchy flour effective in making breads, thickening stews, and even porridges and a world renown by-product–Tapioca.
Sweet manioc roots contain less than 50 mg per kilogram hydrogen cyanide on fresh weight basis, whereas that of the bitter variety may contain up to 400 mg per kilogram. (approximately 100mg is toxic to a 120 lb human)
Sweet manioc roots can generally be made safe to eat by peeling and thorough cooking. However, bitter manioc roots require more extensive processing. An accepted traditional way to prepare bitter manioc roots is by first peeling and grating the roots, and then a lengthy soak of the gratings in water to promote leaching and a sort of fermentation, finished by long cooking to release the volatile hydrogen cyanide gas. Cutting the roots into small pieces, followed by soaking and boiling in water is particularly effective in reducing the cyanide content in manioc. Fresh bitter manioc requires traditional methods to reduce its toxicity. Adequately processed manioc flour and manioc based products have very low cyanide contents and are considered safe to use.
In the metropolitan region along the central east coast of Brazil rise the two massive and modern cities of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. Identifying Brazilian cuisine in these gastronomic hubs is difficult. Non-domestic inhabitants might be lucky enough to sample native cuisine if they catch an invite to a home for a home-cooked meal. Food featured at public dining places offer fast foods from the world forum or ethnic foods of other cultures as the natives prefer their home cuisine served at home. One outstanding dish that lends itself to the region is the marinated shell on shrimp dish Camaroes a Paulista. The shell on shrimps are marinated in lime and cilantro then fried in garlic scented olive oil until very crisp.
Another, Cuscuz Paulista, not at all like the North African couscous, makes a grand sculpture of corn meal and manioc with features of hearts of palm, sardines, hard boiled egg, and tomato slices all in a decorative molded presentation. Corn found its way from Central and Northern America to the populous region of Brazil. Its faster maturation time made it more desirable than manioc and in this region has supplanted it as the preferred staple food. Sao Paolo borders gaucho country and it only makes sense that the Churrasco of the south is very popular here.
It would be a travesty to walk away from Sao Paolo without noting the coffee boom of 1860 where it became the national drink. This fad spread suddenly and swiftly through the urban regions of Brazil where coffee found its way into everything. Frank Sinatra made this evident in his rendition of The Coffee Song where one line says, “… they even put coffee in the coffee in Brazil.” With the extreme demand for coffee and a diminishing labor force from the abolition of slavery a new source of worker was desperately needed. What seemed most economical was importing low wage earning immigrants to work coffee growing and harvesting plantations . This in turn added to the desire for non-indigenous foods in the most populated areas of Brazil. Workers wanted their own native foods and soon the culinary adaptation became the new local cuisine.
Coastal northeastern provinces of Brazil were the first and most important areas to the Portuguese colonists. Climate conditions mirrored that of the Azores and made a perfect setting for sugar cane growth. Booming sugar trade in Europe and a lack of manpower in the Brazilian colony made way for the procurement and use of West African slave importation. With the slaves as with many cultures throughout the world came their cuisine.
A primary infiltration was the adaptation of using red palm oil for frying breads and other starchy foods. Red palms imported from West Africa adapted well and flourished in the wet hot Brazilian climate. Portuguese nuns had extensive knowledge of sweet cookery and adapted their lavish recipes to use coconut milk where cow’s milk was and enrich sweets with eggs and fresh sugar cane products.
Many sweets included saturated solids from dende (red palm oil as it is called in Brazil). Colorful names like “I Want More” or “Hoping for Husband” added more than just the bright red-orange color of the dende. Away from the coast the lands become arid and inhospitable except to the Vaqueiros, a rugged less fortunate cowboy than the Gauchos of the south. Harsh survival conditions provided inferior cattle suitable for only stewing meat or drying meats but only after considerable pounding to tenderize it into palatable condition.
Central Brazil in the heart of South America offers little in the way of national cuisine unless piranha stew suits your palate. There are other odd fish and limited game but bitter manioc seems to be the life provider.
North and western Brazil are the regions that come to mind when thinking of Brazil. Lush twisted rainforests that proliferate all along the Amazon River Basin form the majority of this region. Again it is bitter manioc that feeds the people of the land. Exotic fruits and many species of fish supplement manioc but the cuisine never had the opportunity or the resources to develop into anything more than basic Indian fare. Even today with some emancipation of the tribes, the world’s culture hardly influences food and lifestyle. Guarana fruit is notable in that it has a mild intoxicating effect similar to caffeine, I remember as a high school teen finding Trop, a gaurana fruit sod, in the local convenience store in the late 1970s and drinking it for the legal rush since I was underage for alcohol. The Brazilian rainforest provided another common favorite of western civilization. Cashews! The ‘nut’ is the little sack dangling from below the flower bud waiting inside to be harvested.
At long last it is time to recognize Brazil’s national dish. Feijoada Completa is an elaborate stew of black beans with sausages, dried and smoked meats served with an array of side dishes. Some of the side dished are dried and fresh orange slices, brown butter fried manioc meal, rice, shredded greens, and a lemon-garlic sauce with scallions and malaguetta peppers. If you as a Brazilian about the dish they will swear that the dish is uniquely Brazilian and was never inspired or influenced in its inception by any other cuisine. I do however find it odd that the Portuguese have a white bean dish made from various meats like sausages and hams that has been around since before the Portuguese ever set foot in Brazil. It is called ———— Feijoada—go figure!
Bolinhos de Arroz
Rice fritters with egg, scallion, and parsley.
Bolinhos de Arroz Rio
Rice fritters with sardines and Parmesan cheese.
Bolinhos de Arroz Piranah
Rice fritters with pounded carne seca (dried salted beef) and malagueta peppers.
Empadinhas de Galinha
Little puff pastry pies filled with lime-marinated shreds of chicken, bacon, and mild sausage.
Mock drumstick croquettes made of bay scented chicken, lime juice, and cream cheese.
served with choice of one side dish
Sides: Toasted manioc meal, Brazilian Rice, Tapioca cheese rolls, Fried sweet manioc or Steamed kale
Camarao na moranga
Cheesy shrimp sauteed in onion and rosemary then roasted in individual serving pumpkins with creamy catupiry cheese.
Moqueca de Camarao
Huge lime marinated shrimp sauteed in dende oil and served in a tomato-coconut sauce.
Arroz de Carreteiro
Carne seca (dry salted beef) re-hydrated in red wine and fried with plenty of garlic and onions then tossed with rice and heavily seasoned with cayenne and black pepper. Not for the timid.
Cuscuz Paulista (serves 2 or more)
A molded grand tower of cornmeal and manioc enriched by embedded treasures including: hearts of palm, shrimp, sardines, tomato wedges, hard boiled egg slices, ripe olives. A feast in itself!
A never ending parade of freshly roasted meats including linguica, filet, sirloin, flank, goat, and of course cupim (meat from the hump of a zebu cow).
Slow cooked black bean stew riddled with 6 kinds of meat and served with yes, the complete array of garnished you’d come to expect
Torrijas de Nata
Fried cream dollops served with orange wedges and a caramel cinnamon custard dip.
Deep cocoa two layer sponge cake with super thick Brazilian style ganache. Topped with tons of chocolate sprinkles.
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