When the world comes to Brazil

As a country named after its proliferation of timber trees (brazilwood trees, Caesalpinia echinata, sometimes called pernambuco trees after the region of the country where they were first harvested), Brazil has always been known for the rich abundance of its natural resources. The 5th largest country in the world, both in terms of landmass and population, Brazil has vast supplies of anything from sugarcane and coffee to iron ore and oil that have always brought people from all over the world to trade, exploit and colonise. And, just as Brazil’s land and culture have given a great deal to the world, so have they imported and incorporated much from elsewhere.

Charles MillerNowhere is this cultural exchange more apparent than in the world of football. As a Southampton fan it gives me great pleasure that the man responsible for the love of what Pelé called the beautiful game in the country that plays it best was one of our former players. Charles Miller was the English educated son of a Scottish railway engineer working in São Paulo and his Brazilian wife. While at school in England he played for Southampton (then still called St. Mary’s FC) and, when he returned to Brazil to join his father working for the railway company in São Paulo, Miller took with him a couple of footballs and a copy of the Hampshire Football Association rules to get the people of Brazil and his railway company colleagues playing the beautiful game the Southampton way. Miller (pictured here in the Saints kit as a fresh faced youth, but who would go on to sport a fabulous moustache wider than his face) organised the first football clubs, matches and leagues in Brazil at the end of the 19th century.

ZizinhoSouthampton may have sent football to Brazil, but there’s no doubt that it was in the Amazon nation that the game was perfected. By the time Miller was in his 70s in 1950 the country of his birth was hosting the greatest football contest of them all, the World Cup. While England’s campaign was stopped short by a humiliating defeat to a mostly amateur American team, the hosts, spearheaded by the supremely talented Zizinho (described by Pelé as: “a complete player. He played in midfield, in attack, he scored goals, he could mark, head and cross”), were comfortably on their way to the title. There was no final that year, just a final group stage in which Brazil won their first two games 7-1 and 6-1. All they needed was to draw the final game with Uruguay and this football obsessed nation would be World Champions on home soil. They lost.

NeymarNow, 64 years and a record breaking 5 successful World Cup campaigns later, the beautiful game’s biggest competition returns to its most successful country to give Brazil a chance to lay the ghosts of 1950 to rest. Brazil’s campaign begins tomorrow when they play Croatia at São Paulo’s Arena Corinthians (Charles Miller also played for London amateur club Corinthians, hence the equivalently named team in his Brazilian hometown) and, to commemorate this World Cup, I have been looking into the country’s culinary heritage to cook some Brazilian food to watch the World Cup with.

Appropriately for such a global coming together as the World Cup, Brazilian cuisine takes inspiration from the four corners of the world, combining their own aforementioned resources with ingredients and techniques from Europe, Africa and Asia.

Naturally, with a country of this size the cuisine is quite regional. The largest population centres are in the South East. It is to here and the biggest city São Paulo that Charles Miller first brought football and where the first game will be played and it is here that the second biggest city Rio di Janeiro will host the final at the iconic Maracaña. These are the areas where the Portuguese colonists made their major settlements and the cities that endure there now have a style of food and cooking that bears the mark of obvious Portuguese influence.

Black beansThe staple of the South Eastern Brazilian diet, in common with much of the Americas, is rice and beans. Black turtle beans, as also seen in Mexican frijoles negros (Mexico are Brazil’s second opponents on Tuesday), are the Brazilians’ beans of choice. Brazil is the world’s largest producer of black beans and, in 2006, the Food Guide for the Brazilian Population recommended that Brazilians should eat them once every day. In Cuba this dish has the more poetic name of Moros y Cristianos (Moors – the black beans – and Christians – the white rice), but in Brazil it is simply feijão com arroz.

The beans (feijão) are native to Brazil, while the rice (arroz) was brought by the early Portuguese colonists. Rice and beans had always been a staple of West African populations and a taste for the same was brought with African slave labour to cultivate the new rice plantations. Between West Africa and Brazil is where the Atlantic is at its narrowest so it was easy to bring both food and labour across. Many Brazilians in the World Cup team are descended from both these early colonists and their slaves, while these West African nations are the major football hub of their own continent, with Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon all competing in Brazil.

Generally regarded as the “national dish” of Brazil, feijoada is a step up from the basic black beans and rice that adds meat and is eaten traditionally on a Wednesday and Saturday lunchtime in Rio, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte (home of Cruzeiro, the Brazilian champions and where England play their final group game against Costa Rica). As it is the country’s national food, I thought that a feijoada would be a good way to begin my attempts to cook up some tasty Brazilian treats.

Feijoada meatsAs a dish feijoada has its origins in age old recipes from the Estremadura region of Portugal (the region around the capital Lisbon, home of Portugal’s most successful football club Benfica) that mix rice, pork or beef and smoked or spiced sausages such as chouriço or farinheira. A Brazilian feijoada is noted for its use of a wider variety of different meats, many smoked or salted, and ensuring that various trimmings of the pork, such as feet, ears and tails, are also used, wasting nothing. Pigs ears are not too easy to come by here in York, but I managed to get a trotter, which I gradually simmered in a pan of water alongside some pork ribs, ham and a smoked pork loin, for a couple of hours to make the meat nice and tender and to create a well flavoured stock for cooking the beans in.

FeijoadaThe beans that I had soaked in water overnight I then cooked in this stock for a further two hours before sauteeing onions in a pan, adding chopped garlic, tomato and peppers and simmering this in the blackish purple juices from the beans. To this I added the shredded meats from earlier on plus smoked bacon and slices of chouriço. After around 15 minutes I had my feijoada and served it with white rice and the traditional side dishes of greens and orange segments (the yellow and green colours of the Brazil shirts). A Brazilian feijoada should not be full of spiciness, so I just added a little smoked paprika for flavour, keeping the meaty taste of the black beans and the smoky, salty meat. I enjoyed the feijoada. It’s simple, hearty food, full of meaty flavour throughout. It’s basic stuff, but you can see why the Rio residents are so fond of it.

Of course red meats are popular in Brazil because the country has huge areas of grassy plains where the gauchos (cowboys) herd cattle. The Southern regions, further South than São Paulo in areas like Rio Grande do Sul, have a diet that delights in churrasco, a form of barbecue based in the gaucho tradition similar to Argentinian steak cuisine (Argentina play their final group game here in Porto Alegre, close to their own border). At the other end of the spectrum, Brazil is also a country full of water, from its lengthy coastline to the world’s largest river, meaning that a seafood diet is inevitable.

CoconutsIn the Bahia region of Brazil’s North East (the region’s main city Salvador may host England’s quarter-final should we get that far), there are a number of popular prawn dishes such as vatapá, acarajé and bobó de camarão. I decided to make the latter as my attempt to acknowledge Brazil’s seafood heritage. Bahia is the closest part of Brazil to Africa and bobó de camarão is a perfect example of the mingling of West African influences and Brazil’s native ingredients such as cassava root and coconut.

Bobo de camaraoThe dish has some similarities with West African prawn dishes like ipetê, prawns are marinated in garlic and lime juice and then cooked in coconut milk thickened by puréed cassava root. I fried onion, garlic, tomato, spring onion and coriander and added the marinated prawns and after a few minutes combined it with the coconut milk and the cassava root. Professor Plum loves prawns, so this was definitely a winner with her. I found it a pleasant dish, but felt that it could have used a little more of a spicy kick.

Away from these main dishes, Brazil also has a thriving culture of snacking and street food, mostly deep fried as the best street snacks are, that once again show the world’s influence on Brazil. A salgadinho, meaning a little salty thing (and also the name of a town in the region of Pernambuco, the area after whom brazilwood trees are also names. The Arena Pernambuco in Recife is where England might play in the second round), is basically the closest equivalent that the Brazilians have to a Spanish tapa and I decided to make a few of these as well.

SalgadinhosPasteis are an example of this kind of deep fried snack food tradition. A Brazilian pastel, a sort of rectangular deep fried pastry a little like a samosa, is not particularly related to what the Spaniards or Portuguese call a pastel, which is more of a sweet cake or pastry. The popular belief with the Brazilian pastel is that it actually came into the country through the large influx of Asian, particularly Japanese, immigrants (if any Asian country stands a chance of impressing at the World Cup it is Japan, England’s potential second round opponents). This theory suggests that Brazil’s Japanese community invented pasteis when adapting deep fried wontons for Brazilian tastes.

Pasteis are filled with anything from meat to seafood to palm hearts to cheese. I decided to use mozzarella for mine as Brazilians love a cheesy snack (pão de queijo, cheese bread, is another popular dish). One of the other things that makes a Brazilian pastel peculiarly Brazilian is the dough, made from flour, water, oil and a spoonful of cachaça. This rum-like spirit is made from distilled sugarcane, one of Brazil’s major crops, and is (apart from coffee, of course) Brazil’s national drink, made to make the popular caiprinha cocktail. The brilliant Brazilian winger Garrincha (“the little wren”), probably second only to Pelé in the list of the country’s finest talents, drank himself into an early grave with cachaça, taking after his alcoholic father. To my taste the cachaça proved a little too strong a flavour for the rest of the pastel, but it’s hard to say no to a deep fried cheese treat.

EmpadasFrom a little wren to a little chicken brings us to a different kind of pie that is baked rather than deep fried: empadas. Etymologically these obviously relate to the Spanish pasty empanadas, although in reality the latter is somewhere in between a Brazilian empada and a pastel. Empadas are little muffin sized pies typically filled with chicken. For mine I fried shredded chicken breast with onion, garlic, spring onions and tomato, before adding paprika and parsley and stirring in a white cheese sauce, baking the pies for about 20 minutes. I like a pie, so these little snack pies were good, albeit very filling for finger food.

CoxinhaAnother chicken snack, perhaps more widespread, are coxinhas. A sort of version of a chicken croquette, coxinha literally means “little chicken thigh” and they are often shaped to resemble a chicken drumstick. The folk story behind these pseudo chicken parts goes back to the imperial era of 1800s Brazil, between the country gaining independence from Portugal and becoming a republic. Apparently Imperial Princess Isabel “the Redemptress” (daughter of Brazil’s last emperor Pedro II “the Magnanimous”) had a son who lived in isolation due to his mental problems. This boy would only eat chicken thighs, so when cook ran out of thighs he shredded the other parts of the chicken and surrounded this with dough that could be shaped into a the appropriate shape. With the boy and his imperial family enjoying the new delicacy, coxinhas became a regular part of Brazilian life. The story may be almost certainly untrue, but the distinctive shape of a coxinha remains an important element of this chicken snack.

My coxinhas were made with a similar filling to the empadas, a mix of shredded chicken, onions, garlic, spring onions, parsley and paprika. These I spooned into a flour dough, topped with cream cheese and coated in breadcrumbs before deep frying them. I really liked the coxinhas, they were probably my favourite of the Brazilian snacks and the sort of thing I would definitely have again once I can experiment with making the dough casing a little thinner and less chewy.

KibeFor my final salgadinho and having already seen Brazilian food’s connection with Europe, Africa and the Far East, I looked to the fusion of Brazil and the Arabic world. Kibbeh (meaning “ball” in Arabic) is a minced meat deep fried croquette found  in countries across the Middle East and North Africa (these Arabic nations are represented at the World Cup by Iran and Algeria). In Brazil, this dish has been brought over by immigrants from Lebanon and Syria and has established itself as a popular favourite. What is known in Brazil as kibe is made from bulgur wheat, minced beef, onions, garlic and mint, shaped into “torpedo” croquettes and deep fried before being served with segments of lime. After all that dough and pastry, these red meat based snacks went down well and show that it would have been nice to have a little more variety to the salgadinhos.

Brazilian food is interesting and tasty. It synthesises flavours from all around the world and as many immigrant communities as there are teams in the World Cup. At the same time, however, the same ingredients being used time and time again can make the food a little same-y. At football Brazil may be world beaters, in food they are a decent performer, but perhaps a little way off winning a culinary World Cup.

PlumProfessor Plum in the Dining Room: I think my favourite is the kibe, though I feel a bit staid declaring essentially a meatball the best. The pies were nice, the croquettes satisfying, the cheesey tart things a bit cloying. As tapas type foods go, I think Spain is still the winner, but I wouldn’t turn down street food in Brazil. I really liked the pork and beans, they were especially good later as leftovers.

2 thoughts on “Na Cozinha Com O Coxinha

  1. Pingback: Fazenda – Review | Colonel Mustard in the Kitchen

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