"The thing we miss most when we come here," a Brazilian graduate student told me earnestly about studying in the United States, "is good food." After spending just a week in Brazil last summer, I know exactly what he means.
Even before I stepped off the plane back in the land of taste-free efficiency, I was missing the midday meals at IMAZON, the research center in Amazonia that I had gone south to visit. Not just the camaraderie of people actually sitting down together over food. The food itself. Flavorsome stews of chicken or beef, spiced potato chunks, beans and rice, lentils . . .
This was ordinary stuff, in Brazilian estimation. Unadorned, home-style cooking.
To me it was unmistakably soul food. My favorite was the simplest dish of all: the ubiquitous beans and rice, sprinkled (heavily, in my case) with fariñha of manioc, the ground, roasted "flour" of the starchy root we know (if we know it) as cassava. The beans I had were reddish in color; I later learned, from a knowledgeable informant, that the black beans we northerners associate with Brazil are favored primarily in Rio de Janeiro.
I tasted fancier food, too. A moqueca de peixe, meaty whitefish lightly breaded and grilled, smothered in tomatoes, onions, and green pepper. A creamy chowder of shrimp and corn, served over rice for the festival of Juniñho (June).
Brazilian food, like the huge country itself, is a fascinating piquant overlay of cultures.
The Portuguese is clearly visible in the fanciful desserts and the empadas, quiche-like morsels filled with chicken and cheese. The African, in sauces flavored with coconut milk and dende (red palm) oil. The most intriguing and, to me, exotic layer – particularly prominent, naturally, in Amazonia – is the native Brazilian.
The old Ver-o-peso market in Belém brims over each morning with the products of the forest: açaí palm, made into the favorite local drink; cupuaçu, a potent fruit used in custardy desserts; cacao, the essence of chocolate, available both as dried "beans" and as a bitter, pulpy fruit.
In an open-air restaurant in Pará I experienced the dish known as tacacá, which for some reason Paraense don't like to hear referred to as soup. Served in a deep bowl, it incorporates shrimp and tapioca with a pungent yellow liquid known as tucupi, and a dark leafy green named jambu, one of whose pleasant effects is to mildly numb the lips and tongue.
In the cosmopolitan south, this native influence is muted. Rio and Sa> Paulo, rivals who like to disparage one another's preferences in, among other things, beer, embrace different admixtures of the influences of Brazil's later immigrant streams: German, Italian, Japanese, and Lebanese, among others.
Despite sharp regional differences, however, across Brazil there is one constant: the obvious joy taken in food, and in eating. As perhaps only in New Orleans here on the northern end of America, food is king. Eating in Brazil runs way beyond refueling, and smack into celebration. And celebration is something Brazilians take very seriously. One of the biggest puzzlements for another Brazilian acquaintance on his coming to the U.S., for instance, was our limited conception of just what is entailed in a parade. "Five minutes after the marchers had passed," he told me, genuinely aggrieved, "the police are clearing the streets. Five minutes. In Brazil the parades last all night."
Brazilians, let it be said, know how to celebrate – and how (and how!) to eat, as in the case of feijoada, which might be considered the national dish. Feijoada is a daunting combination of meats – sausages, beef, spare ribs – cooked with black beans and an assortment of spices into a stew of boggling richness, and served with orange sections for color.
"This is not health food!" my Brazilian friends laugh. Unlike some tourists, they know better than to eat feijoada on those very hot days in January and February, or to exert themselves after eating it. ("If you play soccer after eating feijoada," one says, "you will end up in the hospital.")
No, this dish is reserved for Saturdays and other holidays, of which there is no shortage in Brazil. "We start with caipirinhas," the expert told me, naming the popular libation made with lime and cachaça, a potent sugar-cane liquor. "Then we eat the feijoada. Then we go and rest."