I visited Brazil a couple of years ago, and found it to be an incredibly exotic and exciting place. I spent most of the trip in Rio de Janeiro, and I’ve never seen a city like it – the busy urban streets are covered in massive jungle trees, creating a green canopy over the bustling city. Right on the doorstep of the east of the city are miles and miles of white sandy beaches, with green mountains cradling it from the west. Being the fifth largest country in the world, there is a lot of diversity in food throughout Brazil, but my broad impression is that the cuisine is colourful, fresh and commonly incorporates tropical fruit into savoury dishes. There is also a lot of influence from the many waves of European and African immigration since the indigenous cultures prevailed. It saddens me that, at least in Australia, the most “South American” restaurants tend to get is “Mexican” (which is actually North American..). The result is that, although Australians are well-acquainted with any sort of Asian and most European food imaginable, very few have any idea of what real South American food actually is, and how much it varies across regions. Perhaps that means there’s a market for South American restaurants? Noted…
Feijoada is often touted as Brazil’s national dish, and indeed I found it commonly on menus in cheap and upmarket restaurants alike when I visited. Similar bean dishes were introduced to Brazil during Portuguese colonisation in the 1500s, but feijoada has since taken on an entirely new identity after the incorporation of tropical ingredients and attitudes. The name comes from the word “feijão”, which means beans in Portuguese, and describes a stew of black beans and meat. Traditionally, the meat is a mixture of salted pork or beef, and often includes cheap trimmings such as ears, tails and feet, as well as bacon, ribs and sausage. I included pork ribs, bacon and small choriço sausages in my feijoada, flavouring the stew with onion, garlic, bay leaves, smoked paprika and a pinch of dried chilli powder. The best thing about feijoada, in my opinion, is the sides. The combinations of these vary depending on the cook, but most commonly include white rice, oranges (to aid digestion) and farofa. Farofa is a coarse powder of cassava flour, toasted with butter, salt, onions and garlic that is used as a side or ingredient in many Brazilian dishes. It’s delicious in its own right, but makes magic when combined with food that’s a little moist, as the farofa absorbs the liquid and creates a great texture. I also accompanied my feijoada with hard boiled egg, sautéed greens, Brazilian salsa (tomato, capsicum, coriander, oil and lemon juice), and fried plantain bananas. Feijoada is often served at family gatherings for weekend lunch, intended to be eaten at a leisurely pace throughout the afternoon. This is one of my favourite meals, the combination of all the different sweet, salty and sour flavours is wonderful. You can perfectly top off your meal with a drink of caipirinha, which is the national Brazilian cocktail of cachaça (a spirit made from sugarcane), lime and sugar. Be warned: you may need a very long sesta after this combination!
Moqueca de camarão
Moqueca describes a seafood stew, flavoured with tomato, onion, green capsicum, coriander, garlic and coconut milk. It can be made with a mix of fish, or, as here, with camarão (prawns). The stew originally hails from the state of Espírito Santo, where it is called moqueca capixaba. This version more closely resembles what I made, mainly because the common Brazil-wide moquecas usually use a lot of palm oil in the recipe, whereas the moqueca capixaba uses olive oil. The stew is traditionally cooked in a clay pot, made water resistant with mangrove tree sap. The incorporation of coconut milk into this stew made it taste surprisingly like a Thai curry, although the other flavours helped to remind me of its Brazilian origins. Seafood and coconut are a match made in heaven, and this stew was no exception – the delicate sweetness of the prawns and coconut contrasted nicely with more savoury flavours. Perfect to be eaten with rice, or pirão, which is a paste made from the same flour as farofa.
Picanha describes a cut of beef that is uncommon in Australia but very popular all over South America. It’s also known as the sirloin cap, rump cap or rump cover, and is a tender part of the rump that has a thick covering of fat. It is usually seasoned with plenty of salt and pepper, barbecued whole (with the fat still attached) until medium rare, then cut up into thin slices to serve. This cut of meat isn’t sold commonly in many parts of the world, so my best advice to those wanting to try it is do your research as to exactly what it is, then form a good relationship with a butcher and ask them to cut it for you. In Brazilian steakhouses (called churrascarias), picanha is cooked over charcoal on rotating skewers, along with many other types of meat including pork, lamb, chicken, chicken hearts and sausage. Waiters come to each table proffering these skewers and a knife, which they use to carve off slices of meat onto your plate. If you haven’t been to a churrascaria, you ought to visit one at your next opportunity – but make sure you’re hungry and not a vegetarian! I cooked my pichana on a humble gas barbecue, and served it with a side salad, farofa, baked cassava and paõ de queijo. Paõ de queijo is bread made of fine cassava starch, egg, oil and cheese, formed into small balls and baked. I loved this meal – the cut of meat is tender and delicious and the sides enhance the flavours even more. I haven’t often barbecued large pieces of meat before, generally opting for single-serve steaks, but I think I will start doing it more – it’s a good way of sealing in all the juices and getting an incredibly tender result.
Empadão de frango
This dish doesn’t look particularly Brazilian, as it resembles a fairly standard European pie, but apparently it is traditional and the filling has some Brazilian flair. Empadão has a small version, called Empadinha, which resembles a single-serve chicken pot pie. The filling is made with cooked and shredded chicken breast, mixed with crushed tomatoes, onions, garlic, green olives, peas, corn, hot sauce and parsley. This mixture is thickened with milk, chicken broth and flour. The filling is poured into a pastry made with flour, egg yolk, butter and water, and then more pastry used to cover the top. The whole pie is then coated in egg wash and baked until crispy. One of the important lessons I’ve learned during this cooking jape is that pies are much easier to make than they look. The dough for the crust is so buttery it can be mixed in a food processor, and requires very little kneading after that (as opposed to bread which is indisputably a hassle). The fillings can be infinitely varied to your wildest imaginations, and the net result is extremely impressive and delicious compared to the efforts taken. I will definitely incorporate many varieties of pies into my food rotation if and when I complete this mammoth journey.