MAY 26, 2014
The African Origins
of Brazilian Cuisine
The rich melting pot of African, European and indigenous culture permeates nearly every facet of life in Brazil, including of course the country’s culinary traditions. While “creole” culture exists throughout the Americas, the influence of Africa features more prominently in Brazil than in any other country in the Americas with a legacy of African slavery. The Brazilian table of today has deep roots in the African continent, particularly West Africa. African migration to Brazil via the Atlantic slave trade dwarfed that of elsewhere, and slavery maintained a presence in Brazil for considerably longer than in other nations. From 1530 to 1888 (the year of abolition), approximately 4 million Africans were brought to Brazil and forced to labor on sugar and coffee plantations, in the country’s gold mines and in the homes of the wealthy in the major cities. The sheer volume of African slavery had a profound effect (and continues to have) with respect to the transfer of culture and cuisine, in particular the cultural and culinary traditions of West African nations such as Angola, Guinea, Congo, Nigeria, Togo and Benin. Today Brazil has the largest overseas African diaspora of any country in the world, and in fact, has a larger black or brown population than any country in in the world except Nigeria.
The sheer volume of African slavery has had a profound effect on the transfer of culture and cuisine in Brazil, in particular the cultural and culinary traditions of West African nations such as Angola, Guinea, Congo, Nigeria, Togo and Benin
While the transfer of culture as a result of slavery has been profound, impacting Brazilians of all races, deep racial disparities still persist. Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and the majority of society’s poorest members tend to be black and/or brown. Slavery created a legally recognized social stratification along racial lines, and that stratification has impacted the upward mobility of individuals of African descent long after its eradication. However, although slavery has greatly contributed to class divisions, Brazil never experienced the formal racial segregation that plagued countries such as the United States and South Africa. Most Brazilians, including those who identify as white, have some African or Amerindian descent. This racial mixing has undoubtedly influenced the country’s gastronomy. The cuisine of the African slaves (combined with that of the Portuguese and the indigenous) has become the country’s cuisine. Nowhere is this influence felt like it is in the state of Bahia and its capital city Salvador. Salvador is the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, and it is here where the most iconic Afro-Brazilian dishes were born. During Brazil’s colonial period, the location of its sugar plantations in the Northeast of the country meant that Salvador’s port received the largest share of the country’s African slaves, and the climate of this region, similar to that of the West African countries from which these men and women came, meant that many staples of their diets could be easily cultivated in the New World. Okra (known as quiabo in Brazil), Palm oil (known as dendê), black-eyed peas (feijão fradinho), dried shrimp and coconut milk were all transferred to Brazil, enabling many Africans to maintain core parts their existing diet. The influx of these African staples also greatly influenced the diet of the Portuguese colonists. In Bahia in particular, the tastes of the Portuguese departed markedly from the mother country and came to be defined by the signature “trinity” of dende oil, coconut milk and malagueta chile peppers used by Afro-Brazilian cooks.
Today Brazil has the largest overseas African diaspora of any country in the world, and in fact, has a larger black or brown population than any country in in the world except Nigeria.
This cross-cultural transference of foodstuffs worked the other way as well. Portuguese colonialists brought chiles, tomatoes, peanuts, and cassava (known as mandioca in Brazil) to West Africa, in turn influencing the cuisine of the region (and further influencing the cuisine of Brazil as subsequent generations of Africans crossed the Atlantic). It’s hard to think about West African cuisine without these ingredients. I used to think that Brazilians were the only people in the world to accompany their meals with a ground cassava meal known as farofa only to learn that today in countries such as Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana a strikingly similar food is served and known as gari (or garri). All of these ingredients, whether native to the New World or brought by Africans, play an important role in Afro-Brazilian cooking. Cararú, arguably the oldest African dish in Brazil dating back to the 1600s, features okra, dried shrimp, cashew nuts and dendê oil. Acarajé, familiar to any visitor to Salvador by virtue of being sold in the city’s plazas by Bahian women in traditional dress, are black-eyed pea fritters fried in dendê oil, stuffed with dried shrimp and slathered with malagueta chile sauce and vatapá(another Bahian classic – a paste of dried shrimp, coconut milk, tomatoes, dendê oil, and cashew and/or peanuts). Then there’s Xinxim de Galinha, a rich chicken stew that also contains the usual suspects: dendê oil, coconut milk, peanuts, cashews, malagueta chiles, and dried shrimp. And of course, one can’t forget the iconic Moqueca. For me, the Moqueca defines Afro-Brazilian cooking (see my recipe below). Present here too is the Bahian “trinity” of dendê oil, coconut milk and malagueta chile, but it’s in the Moqueca that one is reminded of both Brazil and Africa’s connection to the coast and the vast Atlantic ocean over which both the people and the ingredients that came to represent this cuisine traveled. This delectable seafood stew utilizes both finfish and shellfish in various combinations with the “trinity” along with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, garlic, and cilantro. As with most Brazilian cuisine, these hearty stews are typically accompanied by white rice and the ever-present farofa.
Religion has also played a role in the transference of African culture and culinary traditions. While Brazil is a predominantly Catholic country, in Bahia, Yoruba, Ewe, Fon, and Bantu tribal beliefs combine with some elements of Catholicism in the form of a distinctly Afro-Brazilian religion known as Candomblé. A polytheistic religion, Candomblé practitioners worship a number of gods (or orixás) to whom they offer food as part of sacred rituals, and each god is often associated with a particular food. For example, Yansan, the goddess of winds and storms, prefers acarajé. Yemanjá, the mother of creation, prefers melon, while Oshalá, the orixá of the wisdom of heaven and earth, eats white corn and yams. In the case of Yansan’s acarajé, what was once a historically ritualistic offering of Afro-Brazilians is now deeply embedded in Brazil’s culinary fiber. Of course no dish is as deeply embedded in Brazil’s culinary fiber as feijoada (that quintessential stew of black beans, pork, dried beef and sausage), and I would be remiss here without concluding on a word about the African influence on Brazil’s national dish. It has long been conventional wisdom that feijoadaoriginated with Brazil’s slaves, and in fact, this is the view currently shared by the majority of Brazilians. The story goes something like this: the slaves in the kitchen were given the scraps of meat the masters didn’t want, and the slaves would cook up these leftover parts with beans to produce a glorious, flavorful meal. Eventually this “feijoada” worked its way up the social hierarchy and came to be beloved by all Brazilians.
Recently, however, historians have dispelled this tale as a myth. The reality appears murkier. The most plausible view is that feijoada, like so much of Brazilian culture, reflects a mixture of European, African, and Native American culture. Feijoada is at its core a black bean dish, and black beans were consumed by the indigenous before Portuguese colonization and became popular amongst Portuguese colonists in the 16th century, at a time when slavery in Brazil was only in its infancy. The cultivation of beans expanded across the country as Portuguese colonists expanded throughout the country. Furthermore, the African cultures from which slaves came did not have a culinary tradition of mixing beans with pork, whereas the Latin cultures of Europe (in countries such as Portugal, Spain, France and Italy) certainly did. The meats used in feijoada, too, were not thought of as scraps at all. The elite appreciated the ears, feet and tails of the pig. Anyone who has eaten a feijoadaknows it’s an incredibly meaty dish. It’s implausible that the slaves would have been given such meat in such quantities for their meals. While the slave origins of feijoada have been largely debunked, it’s also incorrect to state that Africans had no hand in this dish. Myths typically have roots in reality after all. It’s important to remember that the character of slavery was different in Brazil than elsewhere, with a much higher rate of racial mixing. Interracial relations were less rigid in Brazil and not solely defined by slaves’ status as a commodity. The cultural mixing that occurred in the plantation houses worked its way into the foods. While the black beans forming the base of the dish were introduced by Native Americans and the practice of mixing pork with beans was introduced by the Portuguese, by the time feijoada became “feijoada” it was almost certainly an African hand in the kitchen doing the work. Together, and over considerable time, these three cultures influenced one another to create a dish that came to define the country. It’s truly a dish emblematic of Brazil as a whole – that “mistura” of African, European and indigenous ways of life.
Recipe: Moqueca Baiana de Camarão
Moqueca Baiana is a classic Bahian seafood stew made with coconut milk and dendê oil. This recipe keeps things simple by using only shrimp. Of course, if you’re one of those people like me who likes to make things hard on oneself, feel free to knock yourself out and make the coconut milk from scratch. It’s absolutely delicious, and in the spirit of making things “authentic” I decided to go this route. I’ll confess that next time I might just pick up a can of the stuff, and in that case a moqueca can make a quick weeknight meal. Another note on authenticity: to be a true Moqueca Baiana the dish needs to include dendê oil. This can be hard to find in many places, but I’d suggest checking Brazilian, African, or Latin American markets. I’ve seen natural foods stores carry as well, and it may be sold simply as palm oil. If you have no luck finding dendê oil go with olive oil instead. Given dendê oil’s distinctive flavor you won’t have an authentic Moqueca Baiana, you’ll actually be making something closer to a Moqueca Capixaba from Brazil’s Southeastern state of Espírito Santo but still really tasty! In Brazil a moqueca is always served with white rice, farofa (toasted manioc flour), and pirão (a mixture of fish stock and manioc flour roughly the consistency of a creamy polenta). White rice alone though will do just fine.
Servings: 6 Prep Time: 30 minutes (1 hour and a half if you make your own coconut milk and stock)
Cook Time: 20 minutes
What to Drink: Ice-cold beer, pilsner style
- 1kg medium shrimp, with heads and shells (if you’re buying peeled shrimp cut the weight in half, or if you’re buying without the head cut the weight by 1/3)
- 2 medium onions, sliced in rings
- 1 small green pepper, sliced in rings
- 1 small yellow pepper, sliced in rings
- 1 small red pepper, sliced in rings
- 2 pimentas de cheiro, sliced in half (optional)
- 2 – 3 malagueta peppers (or 2 – 3 Thai birds eye chiles or 1 habanero)
- 2 plum tomatoes, sliced in rings
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 100 ml shrimp or fish stock
- 200 ml coconut milk
- 6 sprigs of cilantro
- 50 ml dendê oil
- Juice of half a lime
- Salt, to taste
1. Peel and devein shrimp. Set aside in the refrigerator till ready to use. If making your own stock reserve shells for that purpose.
2. Slice the onions, bell peppers and tomatoes into thin rings about ⅔ of a cm thick, discarding the seeds of the peppers. If using, slice the pimentas de cheiro in half and discard the seeds. Set aside a few slices of the onions, peppers and tomatoes to use as garnish.
3. Heat a heavy-bottomed pot or dutch oven over medium heat and add the onions, peppers and garlic and saute until softened a bit, about 3 – 5 minutes. Be careful not to overcook.
4. Once the vegetables are soft, add the tomatoes and malagueta peppers (or their substitute) and saute for another minute. I recommend piercing the malaguetas and tossing in whole. That way you can more easily remove them once the dish reaches a heat level to your liking.
5. Add the shrimp stock and coconut milk, season with salt to taste and bring the stew to a simmer and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes to allow the flavors to marry. 6. Uncover the pot, add the shrimp and simmer for 2 more minutes. The shrimp will cook quickly.
7. Adjust salt if necessary and add the reserved onions, peppers and tomatoes, cilantro and remaining dendê oil. Squeeze a bit of fresh lime juice into the pot at the end to brighten up and round out the dish.
8. Serve with white rice, and optionally, butter-toasted farofa and pirão.
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