You wouldn’t know it from the display of lithe bodies in tiny bathing suits on the beach, but Brazilian food is a hearty mix of meat, beans, carbohydrate-rich root vegetables, and thick palm oils. It’s not exactly light on the stomach—but it is delicious.
To eat Brazilian food is to be part of thousands of years of history. It’s influenced by pre-Columbian natives, African slaves, Portuguese colonists, 17th-century cowboys, German, Polish, and Italian communities and more recent Japanese immigrants.
Despite its super-cool status on the international culture scene, Brazil remains a relatively traditional society. Women work in the kitchen all morning to prepare the main lunchtime meal (almoço), though most middle and upper-class families have a maid do the work. And unlike other South American cooks, they use a light hand on the chili peppers. Brazilian food tends to be salty and rich, rather than spicy-hot.
There are five main gastronomic regions of Brazil, and though there is some crossover, regional specializations are well defined, because Brazilian cooks take advantage of their local resources very well.
In the Northern Amazon, dishes are heavily reliant on native Indian fare: you’ll find cassava root (called mandioca) in most dishes. The food in the Northeastern part of the country is African-influenced, with palm oils and spices. Here, more than a million African slaves worked on European-owned sugar plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Northwest Pantanal wetland area is one of the most diverse ecological sites in the world. It also provides delicious game and hundreds of species of edible fish. The Southeast industrial center of Brazil has any kind of food you could wish for. Most unique to this area are Japanese-inspired dishes, especially in the city of São Paulo. This isn’t fusion eating. It’s actually a new kind of cuisine that is being created every day by Japanese-Brazilians. And finally, the Southern region of Brazil is famous for its meat—slowly cooked over an open fire. Churrasco, as it’s called, is a recipe handed down from the gaúchos who roamed the land for centuries. The German, Polish and Italian communities here have embraced this cowboy culture while remembering traces of their own heritage: beer, breads and sausages.
If there is anything close to a national dish, it is feijoada—a bean and pork stew eaten all over the country. The origin of the dish is a national debate. It may be a creation of the African slaves who would take discarded parts of pork and mix them with beans. Indeed feijoada
completa contains salted pig ears, tails and feet. But others claim feijoada is a direct descendent of the French cassoulet. Whatever the origin, it is still very popular today.
To accompany this amazing range of flavors in Brazilian food, Brazilians add, well, an even more amazing range of flavor in their drinks. Exotic fruit juice, beer, and the ubiquitous Caipirinha cocktail are the tipples of choice for most Brazilians. But that tendency is shifting, says Marcelo de Morais, head sommelier at the Porcão restaurant group, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro. “The old saying, ‘Caipirinha at lunch, Caipirinha at dinner’ is no longer true. People are becoming less afraid to choose a bottle of wine. However, we still have a large population of people living below the poverty line, so while the quality of wine drinking is improving, the quantity is not.”
But with Brazilian producers now hawking their wares on the global market, will Brazilian wine soon be the classic accompaniment to the country’s cuisine? “Right now, producers are focusing their technological improvements on the reds, and the quality is getting better,” says de Morais. “In fact, some of our Gran Reserves are rivaling those of our neighbors, Argentina and Chile.”
While Brazilian wine may have a long road to international fame, Brazilian food is already there. You can find restaurants everywhere from Scottsdale, Arizona to St. Petersburg, Russia; that’s a good thing because it’s not always easy to prepare at home. But we’ve developed a few American-friendly recipes here that require neither a maid, nor hours in the kitchen. All the ingredients can be found in most U.S. supermarkets. Wine suggestions are provided by Marcelo de Morais.
So, with all this rich food, how do the Brazilians keep their bodies in bikini condition? Easy. It’s the samba, meu amor. Shake your hips around for a few hours to a samba beat, and you’ll soon be ready for your itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny, too. And by the way, that goes for men as well as women. Brazilians may discriminate in the kitchen, but not when it comes to miniscule beachwear!
FEIJOADA “LITE” WITH BRAZILIAN RICE
In Brazilian homes with maids, Feijoada Completa is served at least once a week. Traditionally, the dish requires at least two days preparation time (for soaking beans and salted pigs ears and tails). But for Brazilians who don’t have domestic help, it’s acceptable to make a more basic version of this bean and pork stew. This recipe is quick and easy, but retains all the savory flavor of classic feijoada.
For the feijoada:
3/4 cup yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, diced, divided
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large can (1 pound) black beans
6 bay leaves
1 pound good-quality boneless pork, cut into large cubes
5 strips bacon
3/4 pound any kind of pork sausage (hot sausage works very well)
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh cilantro
1 orange, for garnish
For the rice:
4 cloves of garlic, diced
2 cup uncooked white rice
4 cups water
To make the feijoada: In a large saucepan, cook onion, 2 cloves of garlic, oil, beans, bay leaves and a pinch of salt over medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until the mixture thickens slightly. With the back of a spoon, mash about a quarter of the beans against side of pot to thicken the mixture.
In a large frying pan, fry pork cubes, bacon, remaining garlic and a pinch of salt over medium-high heat, until pork is cooked through but still tender.
While pork is cooking, fry sausages in another pan until fully cooked (be sure sausages are piping hot throughout).
Cut sausage into 1/4 inch slices. Add to pork/bacon mixture, and mix together for about 5 minutes over medium heat.
Add all meat to bean mixture. Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes to mix all flavors. The texture should be thick and creamy. If mixture is too thick, add 1/4 cup water. If too thin, mash more of the beans and stir into mixture.
Add cilantro, and remove from heat.
To make the rice: Fry the garlic with oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until soft, but not brown. Add the rice and stir quickly in the pan for about two minutes, until the rice looks translucent, but not brown.
Add water and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until all the water is absorbed.
Serve the feijoada and the rice side-by-side on the plate, and add a thick slice of orange, cut in half, for real authenticity and delicious complementing flavor. Serves 4-6.
Wine recommendation: “This is a strong, savory and fatty dish,” says de Morais. “A sparkling red wine, like Rio Sol Rouge Espumante Brut, works well with feijoada. The tannins complement the savory flavor, and the sparkling part helps with digestion.” While this Brazilian wine is an excellent choice, it can be difficult to source. It’s very similar to an Australian Sparkling Shiraz, which is more accessible in the U.S. Try Schild Estate 2004 Sparkling Shiraz (Barossa).
SHRIMP MOQUECA THAT WON’T KILL YOU
Moqueca is traditionally made by Afro-Brazilians in the state of Bahia. It’s one of Brazil’s spicier dishes. The original recipe uses dendê oil, a palm oil heavy in saturated fat. But dendê is difficult to source and is a very unhealthy fat. This lighter recipe retains the flavor but leaves out all the artery damage.
1 large yellow onion
1 pound fresh shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 large clove of garlic, minced
Juice of one lime
2 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped
1 Serrano chili, seeded and sliced (use rubber gloves to
1/2 cup coconut milk (found in the ethnic section of supermarkets)
Chop 3/4 of the onion and slice the remaining into rings. Marinate the shrimp in the chopped onions, garlic, lime juice and pinch of salt for 30 minutes.
Coat the bottom of a medium saucepan with the olive oil. Add the shrimp and marinade. Layer pan with tomatoes, cilantro, chilies and rings of onions. Add black pepper to taste. Pour coconut milk over the layers and cook over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until the shrimp is well-cooked (will be pink and curled.)
Serve with Brazilian rice. Serves 4.
Wine Recommendation: “This is a delicate dish and I would recommend Champagne to complement it,” says de Morais. “But it doesn’t need to be vintage. The acidity and structure of most Champagnes will bring out the flavors of the vegetables in Moqueca. Champagne Gosset Brut Excellence would be a great choice.”
CHURRASCO FOR THOSE WHO DON’T LIVE IN MANSIONS
A wise man once told me, “Brazilians don’t have the luxury of throwing away any part of an animal.” And nowhere is this more evident than in a real Churrasco Gaúcho, where you will find cow and chicken hearts, tongue, livers and other various components roasting on stakes over an open fire. Of course, the star of the show is the huge slab of beef. Well-to-do families in the Southern state of Rio Grande do Sul have open-fire pits in their homes. But don’t call in the builders just yet—you can re-create a Churrasco experience on your backyard grill.
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 garlic clove, mashed
1 cup of warm water
About 2 pounds good-quality beef (center cut tenderloin,
Tools: A large metal skewer, a large, sharp, slicing knife
Mix the salt, garlic and water together until salt is dissolved.
Skewer the meat and put on the pre-heated, medium-flame grill. Baste meat throughout the slow-cooking process, turning skewer regularly, until it reaches desired doneness.
For a true Brazilian experience, regularly take skewer off the grill, placing it vertically on a plate. Ask your guests to stick their fork into the part of the meat that looks good to them. Slice a thin piece of the meat from that location. Return skewer to grill to continue cooking. Serve with a variety of cold salads. Serves 4.
Wine recommendation: De Morais says, “Churrasco with red wine, especially Norton 2003 Perdriel Malbec, which has structure and intensity, is fundamentally a perfect marriage. But the devil is in the details. You don’t want to put too much salt on the meat, or it will contrast with the tannins.”
CAIPIRINHA FOR STUDENTS
In case you’d like to test the life principle, “Caipirinha at lunch, Caipirinha at dinner,” here’s a basic recipe for this tangy/sweet, incredibly powerful cocktail:
Students gathered for a party in Brazil often make a huge Caipirinha in a drinking gourd, and share it around the room. Germaphobe North Americans may prefer this individual adaptation of the simple recipe. Fancy bars will add a sugar cane stick, but I never saw this done in any Brazilian home. The Caipirinha doesn’t need accoutrements.
1 thick slice of lime, cut into quarters
1 tablespoon white sugar
*A Brazilian alcohol derived from sugar cane. It is available in the U.S. However, you may substitute with rum, and call it a Caipiríssima.
Put 2 of the lime quarters and all of the sugar into a whisky glass. Crush together, using a pestle or back of a spoon, until sugar is wet and the juice is released. Don’t crush too long, or the drink will become bitter.
Add glassful of ice and fill with cachaça.