It started as many ethnic food movements do: small restaurants opened in neighborhoods where immigrants settled. Lunchrooms, tea rooms, and diners were opened by people who wanted to give a taste home to fellow emigrants. Chinese, Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines were all created from family-run bistros. Word spread quickly as people outside of the neighborhood discovered the delicious food. Brazilian is the newest ‘new cuisine’, a delicious blend of three distinct cultures that results in delicacies and dishes that can’t be found anywhere else.
It is important to understand Brazil’s history before you can understand its cuisine. Brazilian cuisine has its roots in the food that sustains the native Brazilians. This includes cassava, yams and meat. But it also bears the mark of two other peoples: the Portuguese, who conquered and stayed, as well as the African slaves they brought to work on sugar plantations. Brazilian cuisine is a blend of all three influences. It’s a completely Brazilian style.
Root vegetables, seafood, and meat are the staples of the Brazilian diet. Manioc is a cassava root derived flour that is used in almost every meal. Although the bitter cassava root can be poisonous when raw, it can be prepared to make tapioca and farinha, which are the bases of many regional dishes. Portuguese influences are evident in rich, sweet egg breads and seafood dishes that combine ‘fruits of mer’ with coconut, other native fruits, and vegetables. One of these is bobo de Camarao, the national dish. It’s a delicious mixture of fresh shrimp and coconut milk in a puree made from dried shrimp, cassava meal, coconut milk, nuts, and flavored with dende palm oil.
The most noticeable influence is from Africa, as one would expect from those who worked in the kitchens. Coconut milk, pineapple, shredded coconut, and palm hearts were used to flavor meats, seafood, vegetables, and bread. Brazilian cuisine is a far cry from many other South American cuisines. It favors the sweet over the hot and, more than any other South American cuisines, has the flavor of tropical island breezes instead of the heat of the desert.
Brazilian cuisine is dominated by cassava and coconut. Bacalao, or salt cod, is a common ingredient in many Portuguese dishes. However it can be flavored with coconut cream and pistachio nuts to make it a completely new food. This is typical of Brazilian food attitudes. It is a sign of an open and friendly culture to which sharing and eating is a fundamental part of hospitality. Brazilian cuisine is like its people: all are welcome and all are accepted, and each makes their contribution without ever overpowering the others.