Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Foods of Brazil: The Tradition of Feijoada

A typical feijoada (photo courtesy of http://www.brazil.org.vt.edu/

One of the most incredible parts of travel is the opportunity to taste and sometimes prepare exotic food and drink, and in the process, learn about the history and people of each area. Food, drink and self-education combined...what could be better? All you need is an adventurous spirit and an open mind (and occasionally a strong stomach) and off you go. It's also a great way to shake up any preconceived ideas about a place. Before I came to South America, I thought that all Latin American food was hot and spicy (I also thought that hooded members of drug cartels were out in force roaming the streets of major cities, looking for innocent tourists to kidnap, so I clearly had a lot to learn). It came as a bit of a surprise to learn that it is actually quite difficult to find food prepared with chilies or hot sauce in South America and the people here are generally not fans of eating food that makes smoke come out of their ears. In fact, here in Buenos Aires it is a challenge even in Indian or Thai restaurants to order anything spicy, unless the waiter takes pity on you and can scare up a selection of chili sauces to bring to the table (which I assure you, you will be eating alone).

The Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro version of feijoada (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Brazil is no exception, even in the heavily African influenced area of Bahia, although they tend to use chilies and chili sauces more than the other South American countries, but generally on the side. The food is complex and flavorful, but the flavor is not overly "picante" as a rule. Food preparation and style varies widely in Brazil depending on the region and ingredients generally used are local versions of African or Portuguese fish, meats, grains and vegetables since many recipes have Portuguese or African roots. Most Brazilians consider the national dish of Brazil to be Feijoada (pronounced  fey-zhoo-ah-dah). There are as many versions as there are cooks, but typically it consists of platters of sliced beef or pork, beef tongue, blood sausage, pork rinds, rice and beans and accompanying side dishes. These can include collard greens, oranges, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, farofa (a type of orange-colored grainy toasted cassava flour), fried plantains or bananas and a variety of sauces on the side, including a chili-based sauce. The traditional drink with a feijoada is beer or a caipirinha, a combination of cachaça, sugar and lime. It will come as no surprise to anyone reading the Friday blog that I had several icy caipirinhas with each meal. Hey, it's tradition...what could I do?  


Traditional Feijoada (photo courtesy of http://www.brazilmax.com/)

Feijoada is more of a family feast than a single-plate meal, traditionally served on Saturdays. My favorite version is made with grilled "carne seca" or dried beef. The beef is somewhat chewy, like a thick beef jerky, but deeply flavorful. The farofa I can do without, since I find it dry and crumbly, although most Brazilians wouldn't consider it a true feijoada without it. The feijoada was originally imported from Portugal, named after the Portuguese word for beans, feijão. Over the years, the ingredients and cooking methods evolved, as all things do, to reflect the cultural differences ubiquitous in Brazil. For example, in Portugal, the dish is prepared with different types of beans depending on the region; in Brazil, the bean usually used is a black turtle bean (although I've had versions made with white beans). African slaves often prepared the meal with leftovers from the plantation owner's family meals, typically less desirable cuts of meat or vegetables past their prime and so had to be creative in the preparation. The meal takes a lot of work and time, including both preparation of the beans and many varieties of meats, slow cooking in a large clay pot and assembly time and is therefore seldom cooked for fewer than ten people and almost always for lunch, usually on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  


A selection of dried beans at a the Santa Teresa market in Rio de Janeiro (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Many food historians find a link with feijoada and other bean and pork based stews and casseroles, such as French Cassoulet, Spanish Fabada Asturiana, even Boston Baked Pork and Beans. These dishes typically started as peasant meals, using whatever ingredients are at hand, then evolved into more high-end home and restaurant offerings, eventually becoming wide-spread and popular and associated with the country and culture. It's possible to prepare a feijoada at home, but be ready to invest time in shopping, prepping and cooking. Most of the more exotic ingredients such as carne seca, plantains or cassava flour (farofa) can be bought at Latin American specialty stores if you live in a big city or online if you don't. The other ingredients, beans, oranges, sausages, etc. can be easily bought at any market. You can substitute ingredients if push comes to shove, such as green bananas for plantains or other types of beans for turtle beans. Feijoada is an ever-evolving dish with many variants, so maintaining a sense of creativity, flexibility and humor is the key to a great meal (and fewer tears of frustration if you can't find the ingredients you need).  

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