The Portuguese westernized Brazilian cuisine which, until the 18th century, had been basically Amerindian – throughout the countryside, in the emerging villages, on the large rural estates, in the mines, in the courtyards and on the plantations. The colonization of Brazil began at a time when Portuguese cuisine was turning into ‘the best in Europe’. The Portuguese were known for their ability to assimilate foreign elements and their tables were laden with foods, condiments, sweets, aromas, colors, decorations, food customs and rituals from the most sophisticated civilizations of the Orient and North Africa. These were mixed with ancient combinations of Christian dishes and Arab or Israeli delicacies.
The first Portuguese colonists settled down into the boundless wasteland of Brazil by recreating their home environment and building towns and villages similar to those they had left behind. Culinary tradition was by no means neglected. Anything that could not be produced on Brazilian soil, due to climatic and geological differences, was imported from the homeland. This was one way of adapting and also of keeping homesickness at bay. The strongest memories, linked to aromas, flavors and feelings, can be kept alive at that most privileged altar of the body and mind – the table.
Enhancing their already varied cuisine with produce imported from Africa and Asia, the Portuguese thus took their traditions to Brazil – not that they neglected the more appetizing aspects of the native diet, such as meat or fish cooked over the fire.
They planted their favorite fruits – figs, pomegranates, oranges, limes and lemons – in the gardens and coconut palms along the beaches. They sowed rice, melons and watermelons. In their vegetable gardens, they grew pumpkins, ginger, cucumbers, turnips, cabbages, lettuce, coriander, dill, fennel, parsley, chives, cumin, mustard, spinach, pepper mint, basil, onions, garlic, eggplant, watercress, calamint, costa, loco, carrots and beet greens. With the addition of boiled or roast chicken, baked rice, turkey, suckling pigs and kid, they were thus able to recreate their native 16th century table. What they couldn’t grow or make – olive oil, olives, cheese and flour – arrived on the ships that shuttled continually between the two worlds. They even attempted to the most delicate of fruits, such as apples, pears, quince, and peaches,.
Portuguese taste was responsible for two fundamental contributions to Brazilian cuisine – salt and sugar – thus refining the Brazilian palate. Hens’ eggs also became a part of the daily diet.
The Portuguese also helped sharpen another of the senses: that of smell. Dishes became more intensely aromatic thanks to the use of condiments brought from the homeland, including traditional vinegar and olive oil (of Arab origin). Thanks to the latter, the art of frying, previously unknown to Africans and Amerindians, became common in Brazil. The way food was served changed too. Leaves were used to give color to the table, with taiob (an indigenous herbaceous plant) replacing spinach.
Desserts, previously unknown to Africans and Amerindians, were added to the menu. Jams and preserves also appeared, made with the new fruits, and sent to friends back in Portugal to allowing them to enjoy the new flavors. A perfect combination of Portuguese confectionery and Brazilian ingredients is tobe found in the tradition of convent sweets, still widespread in Brazil. In the Convento do Desterro in Salvador, for example, it is still possibleto taste the delicacies of this age-old tradition – papos de anjo cristalizados (sweets made from eggs and sugar), sequilhos(biscuits dusted with sugar, very popular in Bahia), bolachinhas de gomastarch biscuits) – as well as famous liquors prepared with local fruits such as cacao, genipa and maracuja. In large homes, tamarind juice was served guests as a symbol of patriarchal Brazilian hospitality (until it was replaced by cafezinho, or coffee).
There is a historical explanation for this. As Padre Antonio Vieira once said, ‘Brazil is sugar’. Sugar brought the African slaves and attracted the Dutch, who ruled the Nordeste for 24 years. This is why, as Gilberto Freyere, the sociologist, points out, the area is Brazil’s most important region for confectionery. According to Freyere, there is a geography of confectionery in Brazil, and skill in the art of cake- and biscuit-making does not always correspond to the amount of sugar produced in the region. In a way, the aesthetics of the presentation of sweets and cakes and their complicated preparation processes is one of the agricultural north-east’s greatest traditions. This area is also known for other sugar by-products, such as sugar cane, unrefined sugar, sugar lumps or powdered sugar.
The sugar industry was also responsible for the development of cachaça (‘bastard, clandestine’), which later earned legitimacy and became the national drink, symbolizing the nationalistic ideals of the Inconfidência Mineira (a Republican conspiracy which failed miserably in 1789). In Brazil, cachaça production commenced in the 16th century, when the Portuguese used the spirit as a currency for purchasing African slaves, but in the 18th century the Portuguese themselves banned the stuff to avoid competition for their own wines and grappas.
Understanding of the past facilitates understanding of the present, hence the future. This historical narrative is a seductive journey in which influences intermingle and lead to the genesis of Brazilian civilization – in which whites, blacks and Amerindians interact in the ritual of eating and their desires for food become more sophisticated. What these peoples had in common was a love of spicy dressings, the product of ancient traditions of provocative flavor.
At this point, it’s worth quoting Roberto DaMatta, who underlines the importance of social eating rituals in Brazilian society, indicating the national preference for cozidos, boiled dishes that are neither solid nor liquid, that blend ingredients that were originally kept separate. In the combination of rice and black beans and flour – the staple Brazilian diet – we find synthesis: manioc polenta, gruel, black and white, all mixed together.The bed and the table: components of a single cultural process with its own logical sequence.
Brazil is a nation formed by three different ethnic groups, a mongrel, half-caste land where everything is a mixture. This is inevitably reflected in the national food. The ‘relational cuisine’ that was born wasan expression of an equally relational society. This, in turn, is the imprint of an intermediary, relational culinary code, which distinguishes the mixture, the linking point and the quality of the synthesis.
This is how the relationship between cooking and subjectivity developed in the new nation, formed by peoples with a millenary history of their own, which bears the marks of its ancestral roots, in which intermingling and acculturation traced an original ethos. The Brazilian people are full of differences. They celebrate white and bright colors, and brim over with the happiness and vitality of Yoruba, a syncretic African religion. They are permeated both with Portuguese tenderness and Amerindian magic and traditions. Such differences have always been present in their interrelations, and eating has become the symbolic basis of the meaning and meaningfulness of the complex society that is Brazil.
CASCUDO, Luis da Camara, Historia da Alimentação no Brasil, Itatiaia, Belo Horizonte, 1983
DAMATTA, Roberto, O que faz o brasil, Brasil?, Rocco, Rio de Janeiro, 1984
FREYRE, Gilberto, Manifesto Regionalista, Recife, 1968
LIMA, Claudia, Tachos e Panelas, Comunicarte, Recife, 1999
RIBEIRO, Darcy, O Povo Brasileiro, Companhia das Letras, São Paulo 1995
Daisy Justus, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is a clinical psychoanalyst and anthropological researcher on Brazilian food tradition, identity and culture.
Translated by Ailsa Woods