FOOD CULTURE – Como num paìs tropical

21 Jan 2002

Over 500 years of food history, the true identity of Brazil has emerged through a particular way of eating and drinking – hence farm produce, recipes and food commodities – and, lastly, the customs surrounding food. The Portuguese and Africans who gradually arrived in the country and settled here alongside the Amerindians formed a true ethnic mosaic. Throughout Brazil the imprint of this ancestral coexistence is clearly and deeply rooted in the country’s culture, and this interbreeding is perfectly expressed in the blend of knowledge and flavors.
These influences emerge in popular culture in general: in art, dance, music, religion, eroticism and myth. But it is in cooking that the presence of Indians, Africans and Portuguese is most conspicuous and that the mixture of races produces its most pleasurable results. Brazilian cuisine, a combination of ‘native traditions, African tidbits and Portuguese delicacies’, expresses itself in a language that clearly translates the authentic identity of Brazil.
In order to understand all these dishes and delicacies, it is necessary to study not only cultural roots, but also all the various phases of regionalization of Brazilian food: Portuguese occupation and trade in the sixteenth century; the colonization and foreign immigration; the social importance of the trade cycles of sugar and coffee; social behavior and customs; the trade in commodities; the development of agricultural; the development of industry; empirical medicine; sacred rituals; taboos and superstitions; and, above all, the domestic workshops that grew up in the kitchens of colonial, imperial and republican Brazil and that have developed to the present day. It is also worth carrying out thorough research in manuals, publications and cookery books, which not only reveal the regional and national peculiarities of the Brazilian people, but also provide a starting point for the reconstruction of their social origins.

The nation was transformed by the cultures that gradually settled there, enriching each region with a blend of traditions, habits and customs, and thus helping form Brazil’s roots. These elements link colonial Brazil, still very much part of the collective memory, with the Brazil of today and even tomorrow. In reality, any attempt to research these origins usually draws a blank, not only due to the interweaving of past, present and future, but also to the harmonious blend of different food traditions and the ‘Brazilian taste’ that ensues. It is also worth pointing out that to go looking for precise information about this type of cuisine is something of an arbitrary activity. The fact is that Brazilian cooking is not static and unchanging; on the contrary, over time it has evolved into something active and dynamic.
A little considered factor is the role of the oceans in linking, rather than separating, cultures. We must remember that the maritime routes – thanks to the Europeans – made a great deal of trade possible with the New World and that many African elements entered through these routes only to go back where they came from in ‘Brazilianized’ form.

The horizons of the relationship between cuisine and identity need to be extended. It is not enough to observe which certain food combinations belong to one group or another. What is really important is the identification of the combinations that first represented a certain group. Definition of dishes as ‘typical’ is based on criteria deemed fundamental for self-identification. The question of regional cuisine thus needs to be viewed from different angles insofar as it presupposes the existence of a certain homogeneity in each given area.
Having said that, it would be wrong to forget that Brazilian cuisine is clearly denominated by the influence of mineiro cuisine (from the state of Minas Gerais). The everyday, simple and uncomplicated character of this type of cooking is reflected in the mineiro way of life itself, with its imaginary universe of ruralization, the reproduction of country lifestyles. Combinations of foods differ greatly from the exotic flavors of baiana cuisine (from the city of Salvador and its state, Bahia), or the French- and Italian-influenced cuisine typical of the city and state of São Paulo. Yet, though mineira cuisine uses very ordinary, common-or-garden ingredients, the end-result is judged incomparable, due to the originality of the cooking techniques and the quality of the traditional, homemade ingredients.

Returning to the history of Brazil, the first reference to ‘Brazilian’ food is to be found in a letter by Pero Vaz Caminha. The first contact between the Amerindians and the Portuguese took place on April 241500. Pleasantries aside, the Portuguese saw Brazil as an opportunity for ‘good lucrative trade’; as well as sappanwood, they also found sugar cane, which they were already growing in their Atlantic islands.
Let us now look at the link between the formation of Brazilian identity and food history through a short summary of its three principal ethnic origins: native Amerindian, African and Portuguese.

Daisy Justus, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is a clinical psychoanalyst and anthropological researcher on Brazilian food tradition, identity and culture.

Photo: Corcovado (

Translated by Ailsa Wood

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