By James E. Carlisle
With the World Cup behind us and the Olympics on the horizon, Brazil takes a break from the spotlight, but I find myself here in the northern state of Pará, immersed in a vibrant culture which keeps on shining. Brazilian culture is renowned for being an exciting fusion of European, African and Indigenous cultures, and there’s no better way to experience that fusion than by tasting some of the exciting foods on offer.
Some Brazilian cuisine can be found in all of the twenty six states. For example, Brazilians are serious about their Churrasco (Barbecued meats), and with Brazil being one of the biggest beef producers in the world the meat is generally of good quality, and cooked to perfection. But the most classic Brazilian dish the binds the states together is a variation of the Portuguese feijoada, a stocky bean stew, seasoned with bay laurel and lots of garlic and cooked with various succulent cuts of pork. The feijoada is usually accompanied with rice, and is sometimes garnished with freshly sliced orange.
The most popular street food across all of Brazil is the selection of appetising savoury snacks known as salgados, which you can always find displayed in the hot counters of the lanchonetes on busy street corners. The most common of these is the coxinha (little thigh), named so because of its imitation chicken leg shape. The coxinha consists of spiced shredded chicken surrounded by mashed potato, and is covered in bread crumbs and fried.
However, given that Brazil is one of the largest countries in the world – spanning more than 8.5 million km2 – it comes as no surprise to find that the culture and the cuisine varies greatly from state to state. The north of Brazil is especially famous for its unique dishes due to the biodiversity and the African and indigenous influences in the region.
For example, tacacá is a tangy manioc based soup of indigenous origin, served in several northern states such as Pará, Amapã, and Amazonas; perhaps a little too adventurous for the fussy eater but certainly not lacking in character. The soup contains the Jambu leaf (a local species of paracress), also known as tooth ache plant due to its anaesthetic properties, and if the leaf is fresh when added, this dish can leave your lips tingling. The steaming hot soup is lifted to the mouth and sipped from a bowl made from a dried gourd, known as a cuia, which is rested in a hand woven basket base. The only eating implement necessary to empty your cuia is a cocktail stick for skewing the delicious dried prawns from the broth. A local variety of spice named tucupi gives the mixture a lively kick, and tapioca is cooked into the soup to form a transparent gelatinous liquid which settles in the base. This goma was traditionally added to give much needed energy to the hard working people of the area. However, due to its peculiar texture, some prefer to order the tacacá ‘sem goma.’ If you’re looking for something unique, traditional and flavoursome, then I recommend tacacá.
Brazil’s traditional market culture offers a recreational way to try the cuisine. São Paulo’s Municipal Market is an Alladin’s cave of exciting ingredients and tasty treats with many opportunities for pre-purchase tasting, and is also home to the award winning mortadela sandwiches bars, a real treat for meat lovers.
Here in the Pará, the markets aren’t so elaborate, but fascinating nonetheless. In most local markets you can watch somebody working skilfully with a machete and a chopping block to remove the shells of the castanha do pará (the Brazil nut), the harvest of which is the bread and butter of many rural communities in the region. You’ll also find the fresh nuts are much tastier than the dried version which makes it across the water, with a creamier texture almost like coconuts or almonds; a perfect healthy snack.
The vast system of rivers running through Brazil is also home to a rich variety of foods, such as the Pirarucu. Named after an indigenous mythical warrior, this fish is a species of bony tongue native to the Amazon Basin which can grow up to three metres, and due to the traditional culinary expertise of the locals, it’s delicious whether fried, cooked or grilled.
And of course, due to the hot climate, Northern Brazilians are spoiled for choice when it comes to fruits, such as maracuja, cupuaçu, goiaba, and the açai berry, the pulp of which is often eaten as an unsweetened bitter tasting compliment to savoury foods in the north as opposed to the sweet açai ice-cream which is enjoyed as a dessert in other regions. Some of these fruits have rather overbearing tastes until sweetened – Caju springs to mind, as its unsweetened juice has a taste and smell I can only liken to sweaty socks – but due to local knowhow they can all be made into extremely refreshing juices or tropical cream desserts. And of course, there’s always a chilled coconut on hand. They just chop off the top, put in a straw, and you’ll find there’s no better way to kill your thirst on a hot day than the natural hydration serum of cool coconut water.
But if you’re sweet tooth is looking for something to feel a little guiltier about, Brigadeiro will not disappoint. This Brigadeiro, or negrinho in some states, is thought to have been created in the 1940’s and named in homage to Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, a famous political figure in Brazilian history. The truffle style sweet consists of cocoa powder, condensed milk and butter, which are cooked together in a pan until smooth and sticky, and then rolled into balls and covered in chocolate granules. It may only be small, but one or two of these naughty treats is usually enough to satisfy any chocolate craving.
And to wash it all down, what better than the classic Caipirinha? This cocktail is widely celebrated as Brazil’s national drink and is believed to have been invented in the countryside of São Paulo state, where the people are referred to as Caipiras, hence the diminutive name Caipirinha. According to the historians, a more complex form of the mixture was created by a land owner as a remedy to ease the pain of his workers whilst they were suffering from Spanish flu. However, the drink has evolved somewhat since then and is now a simple, sweet and refreshing cocktail consisting of sugar, lime, ice, and of course cachaça, the distinctive Brazilian spirit made from the fermentation of sugar cane juice. There are now also a few delicious variations of the cocktail containing other fruits, such as the Pineapple Caipirinha and the Tangerine Caipirinha, and for those whose palate doesn’t agree with the distinctive taste of cachaça, most bars and restaurants will offer a vodka version named the Caipiroska.