The Amerindian woman was the native cook, the first the Portuguese encountered in the newly conquered territory – with or without their wives. She was the first expert in Brazilian cuisine; taciturn and wary, she learned to move around this new world, under the orders of the white women, gradually picking up the use of vegetables and flavorings. The manioc root was the staple ingredient of Brazilian food. The Portuguese confused it with the yam, and in their descriptions of manioc spoke of ‘a yam-like root’. Palm hearts were also widely used by the natives.
Amerindians were familiar with the use of fire, so there was no trace of raw meat in their cooking, though they did eat semi-cooked meat. They even warmed drinks before serving them. An interesting fact is that rare meat (still raw on the inside) was not Portuguese in origin, but authentically Amerindian, albeit adapted to European tastes by the native cook. Hence roast beef is actually native to Brazil, not Britain. When the His Majesty’s powerful and influential British subjects arrived in 1808 with the Portuguese Prince Regent João, they discovered that rare meat has been part of national tradition for over 300 years.
Corn was also part of native food culture, but was not as important as manioc. Corn only began to be widely used in Brazil after the arrival of the Portuguese who realized its potential as soon as they tasted it. The banana, the most popular fruit in Brazil, was not a native plant, but was imported from Africa. The word ‘banana’ is Congolese, and in the ex-Belgian Congo there is a city port called Banana at the mouth of the Congo river.
Essentially hunters and fishermen, the natives did not know how to fry food. Meat and fish were baked or cooked over fire. The only flavoring the natives used was pepper, either green or ripe, while liquid foods were much appreciated.
Other native foods included paçoca (roast meat and manioc flour ground together to make a kind of puree suitable for journeys across the sertão, the arid, semi-desert inland area in north-east Brazil), moqueca (fish wrapped in leaves and roasted in the embers), and caruru (a dish based on leaves and herbs. The subsequent addition of dendè (the fruit of a variety of palm tree which provided an oil used for cooking) and quiab (the bean-like fruit of the quiabeiro) was the brainchild of African cooks.
Today the Brazilians’ favorite fruits – cashews, pineapples, cajá (a highly fragrant stone-fruit), maracuja (also known as passion-fruit or granadilla), imbu (a plum-like fruit), papaya, oranges, limes and lemons – are still the ones Amerindians used to eat.
The natives had their own ‘diet’, which was by no means improvised or meager. The tradition was to eat food that ensured physical health. Nourishment was one thing, eating another; hence flour, corn, potatoes, game and fish were the roots of the human tree, the protectors of life. Not that the natives ever learned to grow food; they ate what was at hand, and consequently many species were lost.
Of all the native cuisines, the Amazonian is the richest in Amerindian influence. Anything you eat in this region still has a deliciously ‘jungle’ flavor, since many of the dishes are wrapped in palm or banana leaves. Cashews are also an essential ingredient in these dishes, which are served in bowls made from pumpkins and still called by native names.
If these native delicacies were to disappear, national cuisine would be greatly impoverished. They bring a special flavor to Brazilian food, as do Portuguese and African dishes. In the kitchens of patrician homes, many of these dishes lost their native regional features and mingled with others to become ‘Brazilianized’.
Many Africans captured from Senegal to the Ivory Coast came to Brazil directly, or via São Tomé, from Guinea. The African slaves were generally termed guiné.
The most important role in the formation of the Brazilian people was played not by Africans in general, but by black Africans in particular, who came from various tribes with different characteristics and cultural values. This meant that African culture was imported not through the assimilation of a few elements, but through those of countless nations, cultures in various stages of development, some already influenced by Portuguese or Muslim culture.
A kind of ‘slave hut culture’ thus gradually began to take hold. Despite obstacles, dances, songs, culture, beliefs, customs and, of course, cuisine began to emerge from this scattered mixture of ‘Africanness’.
The Africans were great connoisseurs of food and experts in cooking over the fire, baking and steaming, smoking, conserving and preserving, as well as masters in the use of flavorings, spicy dressings and palliatives, and the distillation and fermentation of alcoholic drinks. Yet they did come across difficulties with the native culinary habits they encountered, even though they were wholly natural.
In the sugar cane plantations to which they were taken, black women supervised the kitchens, initially because the colonists had not brought their own women along. Now responsible for feeding their white masters and providing for their own needs, they tried to adapt their culinary customs to the ingredients available in the colony. Thus African influence affected the Brazilian diet in two main ways: both in the preparation of food and in the introduction of new ingredients to Brazilian traditional cuisine.
Black Africans played a fundamental role in structuring Brazil as a nation, and it is only natural to find profound traces of this in society three hundred years on. It was black Africans who enlivened Brazilian domestic life, the Portuguese being naturally melancholic in character, and the natives taciturn and wary, ‘almost sick with sadness’. So it was the laughter of the black Africans that echoed through the large colonial mansions; lively and communicative, they brought happiness and fun to the religious feasts with singing and dancing. But this does not mean that nostalgia for Africa was never strongly felt; on the contrary, it even led many Africans to their deaths.
In the kitchens, the native cook began to be replaced by the smiling, cheerful African cook, willing to satisfy the culinary and sexual needs of the master of the house. Races and culinary traditions thus blended, identities were lost, others mingled, and new identities were created. Ingredients were, cuisines intermingled, and new dishes were invented.
The Africans enjoyed yams, bananas, coconuts, chili pepper, dendé oil, all imported from Africa. Couscous, the national dish of the Arab populations, was known as ‘black food’. They chewed sugar cane, sucking out the juice, but preferred a piece of salt to a lump of sugar. They also preserved their tradition as hunters, a fact facilitated by the huge variety of native animals.
The Africans consumed large quantities of cashews and watermelon, as well as guava, pineapple and papaya, though their favorite fruit was the banana. Beans were daily sustenance: they were cooked with dried meat and served with plenty of flour (with the addition of cheese crusts as a special treat). Africans used a great deal of saffron, especially in rice, and sesame farofa (a side-dish of toasted rice) with corn polenta. Cachaça (a sort of brandy distilled from sugar cane) was indispensable and was invariably accompanied by cinnamon, manioc starch, nutmeg, roast onions, honey, seeds, dried fruit and even root slivers, though pepper continued to be the most popular condiment.
The African slaves left their mark on savory dishes, introducing dendè oil, dried shrimp, chili pepper, yams and various types of leaf into the preparation of sauces and dressings. Owing to an increase in trade, the Portuguese influence was also considerable. The result was that a Portuguese specialty such as frigideira, a dish made of filleted salt cod, olive oil, lard and eggs, would be enhanced with coconut milk to give it a special African flavor.
Sweets and desserts also played an important role. Partly thanks to Arab influence, the Portuguese had achieved a certain level of sophistication with sugar imported from far away; imagine what they were capable of with the sugar of colonial Brazil, refined right there in the plantation, just outside the kitchen door. Together with the nuns in the convents, patient, hard-working black cooks played a fundamental role in the development of Brazilian baking and confectionery.
Such cooks revised, taught and handed down old recipes, into which the fruits of the land – cashews, pineapples, mangaba (the soft-fleshed fruit of the mangabeira tree, similar to a yellow stone-fruit), guava and maracuja replaced apples, pears, peaches, figs and Portuguese quince – were gradually incorporated.
African slaves literally invented Brazilian cuisine. The whole of Brazilian culture is impregnated with this African heritage, and gastronomy is no exception. Supported by five strong pillars – the person, the community, nature, creation and tradition – the black African was without doubt the most creative component of Brazilian culture and will always be part of every Brazilian. Irrespective of the color of their skin, eyes and hair, Brazilians have the black African imprinted in their soul, in their gentleness, in their manic gesturing, in their lullabies and in their cooking.
To be continued
Daisy Justus, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is a clinical psychoanalyst and anthropological researcher on Brazilian food tradition, identity and culture
Photo: two Bahian cooks (www.tourismebresil.com.br/normver/tursalva.html)