Brazil’s food is hatched of myth, not history

Soak dried black beans overnight. Boil the beans, onion, tomato, bay leaves, pork shoulder and/or sun-dried beef and/or chorizo and/or smoked ham and/or smoked pork ribs and/or smoked beef ribs and/or bacon and/or pig’s foot and/or salted ears and/or trotters and/or salted belly and/or tails and/or back fat and/or snouts and/or faces in a large pot. Serve with rice, greens, fried cassava flour and beer. This baroque smorgasbord of flesh is called feijoada and it’s Brazil’s unofficial national dish.

I’m learning to cook this iconic meal with three generations of women on the 11th floor in a São Paulo apartment. In Brazil, food is woman’s work.

Perhaps the ex-punk super-chef Alex Atala will change this, but for now the unglamorous twice-daily, mind-numbing task of prepping rice and beans is done behind the scenes. I was once a passionate meat advocate; now looking at (never mind cooking and eating) a pig’s face requires real fortitude.

In the tiny kitchen we’re cooking two feijoadas, as is the custom nowadays: one called completa (which is the full miscellany of animal death, recipe above) and light, which has only two meats (usually sausage and pork) and is more popular with the younger generation. I’ve cooked something similar for many years, which I called “feijoada” but made with white beans and sometimes drunk with wine.

This is not feijoada, I am told. Feijoada is Brazilian and is made this way. It is eaten only on Wednesdays and weekends, only with beer and only for lunch. Although the colour of the beans – black in the south and brown in the north – is often unconvincingly invoked as part of Brazil’s food “diversity”, the use of white beans is an anathema.

According to inherited wisdom, African slaves invented feijoada as a synthesis of European and African culture; kind of like a candomblé of food.

Another food presented as evidence for the Brazil-as-mixture thesis is acarajé, a vetkoek-like bread made from puréed black-eyed beans, deep-fried in dark-brown dendê (palm oil) and served with an orangey paste of bread, fish, peanuts, coconut and dried prawns. The acarajé recipe is an exact version of an African dish – acará (ball of fire) and jé (eat) in Yoruba.

During slavery it was a sacred dish offered to the gods but the freed slave women, the baianas de acarajé, were allowed to sell them in profane places to make money.

The baianas in Salvador who sell them still wear wide white baroque dresses with hooped petticoats and embroidered lace bodices, turbans and ribbons. Feijoada has no such “romantic” history. Carlos Augusto Ditadi (a historian at the National Archives in Rio) and Luís da Câmara Cascudo (author of The History of Food in Brazil) argue, contrary to the slave myth, that feijoada is in fact a simple derivative of European dishes such as cassoulet, the Madrid cooked stew and the Portuguese caldeirada.

This argument is hard to swallow for many and sufficient grounds for excommunication, or at least deportation to somewhere like Paraguay.

The coxinha is the other national dish of Brazil. It is a salgado or snack, whereas feijoada is comida, the Portuguese term for “meal”. Brazilians eat a daily sit-down lunch and dinner based on an equation: rice + beans + x = meal (where x is equal to meat, lasagne, spaghetti Bolognese, Kung Pao chicken noodles, chips, fried banana, salad, mashed potatoes, etcetera.).

Snacks are eaten between meals, standing at cafés, street stalls and botecos (taverns), but never while walking. Salgados are the only food served at birthday parties, but in miniature form, and are called Salgadinhos. Coxinhas are essentially teardrop-shaped chicken pies made from shredded chicken and batter, crumbed and deep-fried. They are sold alongside other doughy, oily, chickeny things in sweaty glass cases.

I learned to cook them with Brazilian friends. They are quite nice when made with good-quality ingredients (which they seldom are) but the pear shape is strangely and embarrassingly hard to achieve. I’m not opposed to the coxinha, but to mobilise a chicken rissole to silence a foreigner’s misgivings about the state of national cuisine is kind of absurd.

“What about Alex Atala?” comes the response. Atala is the bearded, tattooed enfant terrible of Brazilian haute cuisine who serves up ants, tucupi and other Amazon-scavenged goodies at his highly awarded D.O.M restaurant in São Paulo.

He’s the Brazilian René Redzepi; just swap pine needles, seagull poo and moss for priprioca and jiquitaia pepper. It’s less known that he has a second restaurant, where he forgoes the culinary flick-flacks of D.O.M, called Dalva e Dito. Never having been one for gastronomic pyrotechnics (especially at R5 000 for two) I made a reservation for dinner at the latter.

Dalva e Dito is on a corner in the swanky suburb of Jardins where there are many better eateries and grocery stores.

Just around the corner is the obscenely expensive supermarket Casa Santa Luzia, where white old ladies with long hair walk behind brown youngsters pushing their trollies. The grocery bags are New York brown paper and have handles. They sell wholewheat-nut bread, called “Australian Bread”. The city’s best (and perhaps only good) coffee shop, Café Santo Grão, is around the other corner on Rua Oscar Freire.

Dalva e Dito’s menu, like its interiors, is the hip version of classical or even folksy antecedents. Blue, brown and yellow patterned tiles, tan leather, wood furniture and ceilings festooned with hanging plants make for a trendy reworking of the past.

The menu similarly aims at a punchier version of what your Brazilian granny or avó (on the 12th-floor apartment for instance) would cook.

At D.O.M the infamous chicken pie is reinvented as “liquid coxinha” or as “black coxinha”; at Dalva e Dito cod Bacalhau with vegetables is re-presented as cod Bacalhau with vegetables, but perfectly done and with the best ingredients.

I was tempted by both weird fishes – pirarucu and surubim – especially because the surubim comes with jambu leaves, a spinachlike plant from the Amazon that makes your tongue go tingly.

Also hard to turn down was the moqueca, but I’d eaten the real-deal fish and dendê (palm oil) stew on the side of the road in Bahia in plastic-chair-and-beer-promo-bunting botecos many times before.

The octopus I ordered was unremarkable but I was glad to have avoided some peculiar and unfortunate classics: the sundried meat with cassava gratin, curd cheese and Brazilian bottled butter, and a pumpkin filled with a cassava-based cream, shrimp, dendê oil and catupiry cream cheese. (I had eaten both before, though neither before nor after have I ever wanted a creamy cheesy pumpkin prawn dish.

I have two problems with Dalva e Dito. Firstly, R2 500 for granny food is too much, no matter how well made. Secondly, granny food is made with more heart, fun, relevance, less bullshit by a granny. She doesn’t have to be your granny; every ugly tiled suburban eatery has one hiding in the back. A good rule of thumb in Brazil is: the uglier the place, the better the taste.

“Well, you should just leave then,” was a response to my comments. Food in Brazil is not a conversation.

As in all places, the way people eat can tell us about what’s going on politically.

If South African identity is broadly defined by the idea that “we” are all different and that’s what makes us “us”, Brazilian national identity is based on sameness: there is no white, no black, no class, only Brazilianness and Brazilian ways of doing and saying things.

Two hundred million people all agree that feijoada was invented by the slaves, and that pizza is always eaten with a knife and fork and tastes good with palm heart and cream cheese, and that avocado is drunk with milk and sugar, and that a sandwich is never ever a “meal”.

Apart from a few idiosyncratic dishes such as acarajé or moqueca, there is a coxinha in every single boteco down every alleyway, in every favela, on every main street, in front of every beach, in every region.

I was staying once with an important Brazilian architect in her exquisite wood-panelled modernist apartment and I made the morning coffee. I like coffee in a mug, like many people I know, and unlike many others I know too. She spirited the mugs into the kitchen and down the sink, reserving only enough coffee to fill the “proper” small breakfast cups, “the way we do it in Brazil”.

I explained to her that I come from a country were so many people drink coffee in so many different ways that I wasn’t accustomed to one proper way. It was in fact her daughter who suggested I leave the country over dinner on another occasion.

I’ve had the opportunity to put my concerns about this culinary jingoism to a number of architects, writers, activists and artists over meals we’ve shared while travelling.

One critic told me he was working on a commission about why the Dutch have the worst cuisine in the world. I told him the Dutch obviously haven’t travelled to Brazil much. He was not amused.

The only people who ever thought Brazilians were easy, breezy, chilled-out, coconut-drinking beach bums were non-Brazilians. Brazil’s economy is bigger than yours and they take everything, including food, very seriously.

The most Brazilian of all the Brazilians were the Tupí, and they liked to eat each other. Not many Tupí still survive: the colonists who feared becoming their next meal swallowed them up through miscegenation, enslavement or just killed them.Those who have survived don’t eat humans anymore; they eat coxinha.

The myth of cannibalism is a recurring motif in Brazilian cultural life. Brazilian journalist Victor Gouvea pointed me to the famous poet Oswald de Andrade’s Tupí-inspired Cannibalist Manifesto, which called for the total rejection of Europe, the “importers of canned consciousness”. “Down with the vegetable elites!” shouted Andrade.

In opposition to a Eurocentric approach to art and culture, he proposed that Brazilians be in “communication with the soil”. This notion of “Brazilianness” called not only for a rejection of the values of the West but also for the incorporation of the multifarious aspects of their country. “Fuck the West,” he said, “let’s eat ourselves.”

Then everything could be incorporated, swallowed up, Brazilianised, including the almost total (and continued) obliteration of the first peoples such as the Tupí, the mass importation of five million black slaves and perpetual racism, and the continuing privilege of whites in Brazil.

These real structural and historical issues are ignored in favour of banal, stodgy deep-fried consensus. When something like acarajé ends up as “typically Brazilian”, it does so at the expense of history and extends the veiled racism that ignores the actually existing inequalities.

The poor, undereducated, undernourished in Brazil are overwhelmingly black. It was only a scandalously short time ago that rice and beans were made tax-exempt in ­Brazil, something we take for granted in South Africa, that basic foodstuffs are untaxed.

The trouble with Alex Atala blundering through the Amazon jungle picking exotic berries and “know-ledge-sharing” with indigenous ­peoples – with all the ethnographic sincerity of a white man – is that this is what white men have been doing to indigenous people for centuries.

There is no need to “discover local ingredients” and resurrect “ancient techniques” – the people who cook that way discovered those ingredients ages ago and didn’t forget anything; no help is required.

There’s something disturbing about a national cuisine based on amnesia, nostalgia and the denial of difference. I don’t see much romantic about the lives of five million slaves, persisting poverty, or the lives of the baiana who dress themselves in preposterous 18th-century crinolines to sell vetkoek to (white) tourists.

Why won’t Brazil be the next “Peru”? Because it doesn’t want to be. Their approach to food is far more concerned with a mythical past than with any kind of progressive future I can see, for the rich or the poor.

And although that may disappoint us, Brazil really doesn’t care because they have coxinhas and they know that coxinhas are delicious – and that I’m wrong.

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