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 charcoal barbecue, and served it with a side salad, baked cassava, grilled cheese skewers, tropeiro (beans with greens, chorizo, bacon, scrambled eggs and farofa) 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.
Coxinhas, pamonha and acarajé
This meal was my collective foray into Brazilian street food: all delicious snacks that are commonly found being proffered by vendors to sustain you on your adventures through the country. Coxinhas are Brazil’s answer to croquettes, traditionally formed with a filling of shredded chicken, cream cheese, parsley, onions and paprika, which is then encased in a thick batter formed by flour and chicken broth. The mass is shaped into a tear drop, egged and bread-crumbed, then deep fried until golden and delicious on the outside and molten on the inside. As for many of the world’s most simple-yet-decadent recipes, the origin of this dish is rumoured to lie in the pernickety desires of an important child. The child in question lived in the late 1800s of Brazil, and was the progeny of Princess Isabel and Prince Gaston, suspected to be hidden away from the public eye because of cognitive disabilities. This child was an infamously picky eater, and in particular would only eat chicken thighs. The frustrated palace chef, sick of wasting entire chickens, came up with the ingenious solution of shredding a whole chicken, then shaping a croquette into a thigh-like shape, so fooling the child into eating a wider diversity of cuts. Even adults tasting the innovation fell in love with the result, and so, coxinha (literally meaning “chicken thigh”) was born. Pamonha is a comparatively older Brazilian food, the name stemming from the native Classic Tupi language of the indigenous peoples, meaning “sticky”. The base ingredient of mashed corn is also indigenous to Brazil, and can be served plain or combined with sweet or savoury ingredients including coconut milk, cheese, meat or peppers. The corn mash is wrapped in husks and then boiled until bright yellow and soft, perhaps underlying the secondary use of the name as a pejorative descriptor of stupid people (soft as mashed corn in the head, maybe?). Acarajé has origins in the influx of slaves to Brazil from West Africa since the 16th century, where the dish “akara” describes deep fried fritters of various compositions. The Brazilian evolution of the dish added “je” (to eat) to the original name, and is especially associated with the state of Bahia, where female acarajé vendors, called baianas, follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, who used the profits from the business to buy the freedom of enslaved relatives. The dish is formed by mashed black eyed peas, flavoured with onions and spices, shaped into circles or ovals and deep fried in palm oil. These delicious balls are then split and filled with various ingredients like a sandwich, such as shrimp and coriander, or tomatoes and hot peppers.