2.16.2021 Dinner in Rio de Janeiro
Pão de Queijo
Pão de Queijo, or “cheese bread,” is a ubiquitous Brazilian snack, served at every party, available at all restaurants and bars, and even sold as street food on the beaches in Rio. Historically, however, it was considered to be slave food, specifically from the state of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. When the Portuguese first colonized Brazil, the country was centered in the northeastern state of Bahia, where enslaved peoples were brought to work sugar plantations. This all changed with the discovery of massive gold mines in southeastern Brazil in the late seventeenth century. In officially the longest gold rush in history, over a half a million enslaved people were brought to the region and by the mid 1700s, half of the Brazilian population was living in the state of Minas Gerais. There was a problem, though - wheat was poorly suited to the climate. The indigenous Tupi Native Americans had been cultivating and consuming manioc (a root plant also known as yuca or cassava) for centuries and this starchy tuber became the base of what is now traditional Brazilian food. After soaking the root, the main meaty part similar to a potato was given to colonists, leaving behind starch filled water for enslaved peoples. They extracted the manioc starch (also known as tapioca starch in the US), formed small balls and baked them, creating the first manioc “bread.” By the end of the 19th century, the gold rush ended and the state became the largest dairy producer in Brazil, so naturally milk and a sharp, salty cheese similar to Parmesan was added to the manioc dough and viola, pão de queijo was officially formed. In the 1960s, with the advent of television and due to the efforts of a woman named Arthêmia Chaves Carneiro, the cheese bread went nationwide. Contains dairy, eggs; vegetarian, gluten free.
The origins of feijoada are a complex one, with two VERY different competing theories for the “national dish” of Brazil (the answer, as always, is probably somewhere between the two). Black beans like those used in feijoada are native to South America, the Tupi-Guaraní Native Americans having cultivated them for centuries and passing along that knowledge to the new African and European inhabitants. They’re very easy and cheap to grow, which made them a staple in the Brazilian diet, for rich and poor alike. In fact, no meal in Brazil is considered complete without them. What sets feijoada apart is the addition of meat in the beans, creating a rich, hearty stew that is a meal unto itself. The first theory states that feijoada was created in the slave quarters of Bahia (where they use red beans instead of black) and made its way south as the political axis of powers migrated to Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo (where black beans are used). Landowners and colonists would consume the choice cuts of meat, leaving behind the less desirable cuts like ears, snouts, and tails for the enslaved peoples to turn into the magical bean stew.
There’s more to it than that, though. What we do know to be true is that the origins of feijoada, at least conceptually, go way back, at least to Roman times. Versions of Roman meat and vegetable stews are the basis of French cassoulets, Italian cassoeula, Spanish cocidos, and perhaps most relevant, feijoada from the Minho and Trás-os-Montes regions of Portugal. The Portuguese knew about beans since at least the 1300s, with black eyed peas, chickpeas, and kidney beans already staples in the diet before Pedro Alvares Cabral ever set foot in Brazil. There are also iterations all over the Lusophone world in Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Timor, Goa, and Macau (all of which consider a localized version of this stew their “national dish”). Furthermore, salted, preserved, and cuts such as ears, tongue, snout, etc. are considered delicacies in Portugal, not scraps or leftovers (as a Portuguese-American, I can attest to our love of weird cuts). So the second theory goes that Portuguese colonists swapped Portuguese beans for the Brazilian black beans to create feijoada, and it was the slave owning elite who consumed this dish while the enslaved peoples ate a porridge of black beans and manioc flour.
Regardless of the origin, nowadays this magical cauldron is beloved all over Brazil and is a defining feature especially of Southern Brazilian gastronomy. It’s typically eaten on weekends, where one can leisurely eat this massive meal, watch a soccer game, and take a nap. In Rio, many restaurants will serve it for Friday lunch for office workers to ease into the weekend. It’s also a staple for Carnival and Fat Tuesday - a sinful and hedonistic pork induced coma being a Catholic necessity before seeking penance and fasting on Ash Wednesday. If there’s one food that embodies Rio and Carnival, it’s feijoada. For our version, we’ve included only prime cuts of meat, such as Brazilian salted beef jerky, pork tenderloin, bacon, and sausage, simmered slowly for over 5 hours. Gluten Free.
But what about the “completo” part? That refers to the mandatory sides and toppings that MUST accompany any feijoada. Obviously the most important is the rice, the vessel upon which one eats the hearty bean stew. Brazilian rice is typically cooked in a quick sofrito made of lard, onions and crispy garlic (gluten free). Next is the sauteed collard greens. The Portuguese brought couve galega (Galician collards) to most of their colonies and they are particularly well suited to grow in Minas Gerais (hence the dish being called “Couve à Mineira”). The collards chiffonade are quickly cooked with sauteed garlic, olive oil, and a pinch of pepper flakes for a crisp and refreshing crunch (vegan, gluten free).
Farofa used to be a defining feature of enslaved peoples' food. The toasted manioc can be combined with a variety of meats or vegetables for a type of dry “porridge.” In fact, black beans and farofa were mostly likely part of the regular diet for enslaved peoples. Today, it’s used mostly as a garnish for the feijoada, almost as a reminder of the dish’s humble origins. For our version, toasted ground manioc is combined with butter, bacon, and parsley, and Brazil nuts - shout out to Deborah Werneck, Top Chef Brazil runner up, for this inspiration (contains dairy, nuts; gluten free).
Finally, there are the oranges and hot sauce. The oranges are supposedly included to help digestion, but we feel that the cool, refreshing citrus actually provides a sweet and acidic counterbalance to the overall dish. We know it’s a little odd by American standards, but seriously, do try to incorporate the orange slices into every bite. Our hot sauce is made with traditional malagueta and dedo de moça (aji) peppers, both native to South America. The base of the sauce is what Brazilians call a vinagrete, but is really a salad of tomatoes, onions, and parsley. This is all combined with the cooking liquid for the feijoada, so the heat is customizable to every palate (gluten free).
The Brigadeiro, the beloved Rio chocolate fudge dessert, has a colorful and political history linked with Brigadier Eduardo Gomes. In 1945 Gomes became the face of a movement aimed at dismantling the populist regime of Getúlio Vargas. It was also the first time women could vote. In a clever way of fundraising, Gomes played up his bachelor status and turned to the women of Rio for help by selling baked goods (one of his campaign slogans: “Vote for the brigadier, who’s good-looking and single.”). This was also post-WWII Brazil, where imports were scarce and rations common, so things like sugar and fresh milk weren’t available. Enter Heloísa Nabuco de Oliveira, who combined sweet condensed milk with cocoa to create the doce de brigadeiro (Brigadier's sweet). Although Gomes lost the election, brigadeiros became a staple in the Rio dessert-scape. Contains dairy; vegetarian, gluten free.
The Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail and probably one of the country’s most recognizable alcoholic exports. The recipe is a simple one, just sugar, lime, and cachaça (sugar-cane rum) and there are many potential origin stories. From sailors trying to avoid scurvy, to a variation of a cocktail aimed to cure the Spanish flu, to a regional drink from the island of Madeira (Portugal’s original sugar-producing outpost), what we do know is that it became the en vogue drink in São Paulo during the turn of the twentieth century; the word “caipirinha” translates to little country girl, a reference to the farms located outside the city where the sugar was produced. Now it’s all over Rio, from the swankiest of clubs to street festivals. Check out our Featured Recipe which is a traditional Caipirinha, but with the addition of coconut water ice cubes, a little trick I learned from a street vendor in Rio’s Lapa district.
Guaraná Antarctica Soda
Available at Tienda la Libertad
I was 14 the first time I visited Rio and at the time, this soda was my favorite thing about the visit - I fell in love with it so much that my family continued to gift me bottles as birthday and Christmas presents. Perhaps it’s nostalgic, but to me it is a fantastic accompaniment to the meal - the sweetness and carbonation the perfect foil to the feijoada. Guaraná comes from the Amazon Rainforest and it means “fruit like the eyes of the people” in the indigenous Sateré-Maué language. Beyond its traditional medicinal uses, it has been consumed as a natural caffeine source, similar to coffee, tea, and mate. In 1905 a physician from Rio began processing Guaraná fruit syrup. The original drink, however, was astringent and did not gain in popularity until the Antarctica Company (now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev) developed a process to remove the bitterness and accentuate the fruit’s natural flavor.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
For our final menu focusing on African / African American cities, we’re traveling to Rio de Janeiro for perhaps the most fun and festive one yet: Carnival. Thanks so much to everyone who’s ordered these menus, we hope they’ve been delicious and informative. We’ve learned a ton crafting these and it’s beyond evident just how interconnected American, Caribbean, and Latin American foods are with their West African origins. We want to give a shout out to all the bloggers, vloggers, journalists, authors, and chefs who we’ve leaned on to educate ourselves and who are doing great work in preserving these culinary narratives.
And with that, Rio - one of my favorite cities in the world (strong contender for Top 3 along with NYC and Hanoi). I’ve been lucky enough to visit a couple of times at different points in my life - with family, friends, and for work. During college, I was involved with Portuguese and Brazilian organizations and some of my favorite memories are when a local Brazilian-owned pizzeria would make a feijoada with all the fixings for all of us to greedily inhale in their back room (RIP Wall St. Pizza). The city has its problems, mostly stemming from centuries of racial and economic inequality, with the ritzy Copacabana beach just footsteps from the Santa Marta favela (slums) that was recently “pacified” by the military. One thing is for sure though, there’s a certain glamour within every Carioca (someone from Rio) that is infectious. The city itself is gorgeous - the mountains, the beaches - but the energy in this entrepot of cultures is palpable. And in no time of year is this more evident than during Carnival.
The tradition of Carnival dates back to the Greek spring festival honoring Dionysus and the Roman festival honoring Bacchus, both the respective gods of wine. During these festivals, slaves and masters would reverse clothing and roles in a form of drunken catharsis (or penance depending on the perspective). Later, the Roman Catholic Church would repackage this holiday as the time for festivities before the commencement of Lent and the 40-day fast. The word “Carnival” stems from the Latin carne-vale or no meat. The Portuguese brought these traditions to Brazil and by the mid-1700s the rowdy tradition of Entrudo - throwing water and mud at people - started to take hold. While historic Carnival is often thought of in a slightly egalitarian way in the sense that both rich and poor would partake in similar festivities, by the mid nineteenth century in Brazil, there was a clear divide. Rich landowners began attending Carnival balls, with masks and waltzes, whereas the working class and enslaved people would parade on the street.
By the 1920s, the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro started to take its modern form. Afro-Brazilian elements such as elaborate feathered costumes and masks were worn, Samba became the musical backbeat, and parade floats became the main attraction. Check out our Spotify playlist for some awesome Samba music! Samba is now synonymous with Rio, despite its origins in the northeastern province of Bahia and the samba de roda (circle dance) brought by Angolan and Congolese slaves. It’s syncopated rhythm is overlaid with strong percussive elements of batucada. Although it was outlawed for a period of time, this type of music came to define Rio de Janeiro and Carnival, made the likes of Carmen Miranda famous, and served as the musical precursor to bossa nova.
Nowadays, Samba Schools are the cultural backbone of many neighborhoods and communities. Samba Schools rehearse all year to perform on Carnival. They consist of hundreds of drummers, dancers, and singers. They compose their own music, develop unique choreography and pick a Samba Queen to lead the pack. There’s a friendly competition among the most famous Samba Schools like Unidos da Tijuca, Beija Flor, Salgueiro, Mangueira, Mocidade and Portela. Because of the sheer scale of these parades, there’s a region in Rio called Samba City just for building the floats. In 1984, the government completed the Sambadrome, almost a kilometer of parade grounds designed by Oscar Niemeyer, one of the most prominent modernist architects who helped design the planned city of Brasilia, now Brazil’s capital. Recently, Samba Schools have used Carnival as a platform for social and environmental commentary, such as deforestation in the Amazon and the struggle of Afro-Brazilians.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so with that in mind check out this video from the Sambadrome from last year. This festival of food, dance, and music is one of the world’s largest parties and an unbridled expression of joy. We encourage you to get in the spirit of Carnival for our Rio de Janeiro dinner, so make yourself a caipirinha, enjoy the hearty feijoada, and if you’re feeling adventurous, try dancing along!
Featured Recipe: Caipirinha
Makes 2 servings
1 tray of coconut water ice
1 fresh lime, cut into wedges
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 rounds of lime for garnish
A couple hours before making the drink, freeze coconut water in an ice tray
When ready to prepare the cocktail, muddle the lime wedges and sugar together in a rocks glass
Fill the glass with the coconut water ice and add the cachaça. Stir well
Garnish with a lime wheel
Featured Recipe: Pão de Queijo
Makes 20 puffs
225 g “Amid + Mais” special sour manioc flour (available at Tienda la Libertad - this flour allows you to skip scalding the manioc before making the puffs. It’s sold as “mandioca especial para pão de queijo”)
5 g salt
63 g oil
25 g shredded parmesan cheese
100 g (2) eggs
175 g milk
Preheat the oven to 400F
In a large bowl, place the special manioc flour, salt and oil; mix well
Add the cheese and eggs and mix well. Slowly add in the milk
Form the dough into little 30 g balls and place on a baking tray, leaving and inch of distance between each puff
At this point either freeze the dough or bake
Place the puffs in the oven and bake until golden, ~25 minutes
Recipes Inspired By:
Cherie Hamilton’s amazing compilation of recipes from the Lusophone world
Jose Almiro’s fantastic Churrasqueadas channel focusing on traditional Brazilian recipes
Deborah Werneck’s famous farofa
An interesting read on the history of beans and feijoada in Brazil
The politics of the Brigadeiro
A history of samba
A video from a Portuguese Entrudo, the precursor to Brazilian carnival
Learn to dance samba!