Brazilian Food Culture: Authenticity that reflects a vast diversity of influences

Joana Munne and Katherina Cordas wrote Brazilian cuisine for FoodinLife.

Resulting from flavors that mix indigenous, African and European cultures, Brazilian gastronomy was consolidated through uniting of all these flavors and bringing to life something truly unique.

Brazilian gastronomic culture is composed from an array of influences. Initially formed by Indigenous flavors, which included the preparation of flowers, fruits, roots and abundant fish, Brazilian cuisine gained other influences with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. The Portuguese introduced new ingredients from both European gastronomy and inherited flavors from countless enslaved Africans aboard Portuguese boats. All these influences, along with their fusion of ingredients, are what formed the basis of Brazilian gastronomy and Brazilian people’s roots and traditions.

The second important influence in Brazilian food culture came with the great immigration wave that occurred in the 19th century. Hopeful immigrants came to Brazil in search of prosperity and new opportunities, carrying in their luggage recipes from their homelands. From this moment on, a new gastronomic scene was established, one that penetrated the roots of Brazilian cuisine and transformed it permanently. What we today refer to as Brazilian cuisine was consolidated by the confluence of these diverse cultures.

This mixture of flavors, ingredients and stories can be witnessed by travelling all corners of the vast Brazilian territory. Each Brazilian state is made up of its own influences. Local chefs mix Brazilian products and flavors from their region, ultimately displaying the multiplicity of Brazilian flavors. Although so distinct in different parts of the country, nowadays, Brazilian cuisine is increasingly characterized by the rescue of its origins.

When considering the North of Brazil, it is impossible not to mention Paulo Martins, a great diffuser of Amazonian ingredients worldwide. Martins, who died 10 years ago, was a great researcher of Amazonian flavors, especially in the state of Pará. At a time when Brazil’s admiration of foreign products outweighed the appreciation of national ones, Martins brought to light the cultural importance of rescuing national culture and gastronomy. It was because of this movement Martins triggered that, for example, Tucupi, the juice extracted from manioc root, became popular. Widely used by Indians before Europeans arrived, Tucupi is still used today in several gastronomic restaurants in the country, such as chef Thomas Troisgros’ Olympe, in Rio de Janeiro. Chef Troisgros integrates French cuisine with Brazilian influences, using Tucupí as a base for his scallops with mashed yams with coconut and caviar.

Nowadays, Martins’ daughter, Joanna Martins, owns the company Manioca, which produces food based on Amazonian ingredients. Manioca operates through a fair trade chain, developing local producers, preserving the forest and seeking to publicize the most unique flavors of her beloved state.

In São Paulo city, the largest gastronomic hub in the country, many chefs also seek to rescue Brazilian roots and carry out research on the origin of Brazilian flavors and their respective regions. The Southeastern chef, Ivan Ralston, ahead of Tuju, is one of the greatest Brazilian researchers on native ingredients. Tuju’s dishes are odes to local products, selected through a detailed survey with rural producers and presented through a clear narrative of the chef’s immersion. Chef Ivan designs his dishes with technical mastery, one which is then reflected in the form of flavor. An example of his work is his reinterpretation of the traditional Andalusian gazpacho, made with acerola, a typical fruit from the Americas.

Moreover, São Paulo’s gastronomy also comes from flavors that penetrated culture through immigration due to the city’s heavy presence of Germans, Italians, Spanish, Syrian-Lebanese and Japanese peoples. Their foreign recipes, adapted to Brazilian ingredients, created new flavors that only emerged at this intersection. A great example of a restaurant that was born out of these cultural confluences is Evvai, by chef Luiz Filipe Souza. Chef Souza creates what he calls ‘Oriundi cuisine’, a term used to describe Italian descendants. Oriundi cuisine’s dishes mix recipes brought by the innumerable “nonnas” that arrived in Brazil in the last decades, adapted to the huge range of Brazilian products, presented by Souza with impeccable technique and aesthetics. As a result, we have in our mouths an explosion of flavors that tell stories of Italian-Brazilian families, through the approach of haute cuisine. Additionally, this research is reflected in other dishes at Evvai such as ‘Cacciucco na Moqueca’, the union of the traditional Tuscan fish recipe, with moqueca, one of the symbolic dishes of Brazilian gastronomy, or in ‘Honey bread of native bees’, which interprets the ancient

recipe of the cake, applying five different types of honey from native Brazilian bees, long forgotten by the locals.

Descending to the south of the country, I could not fail to mention chef Manu Buffara and her research that praises Southern ingredients, mostly from the Atlantic Forest, preserving, above all, great respect for the land, what it provides and the people behind it. Having been raised in the countryside, Manu impresses on her dishes, delicacy and devotion to local ingredients. Her food also highlights the work of small rural producers, with whom she is constantly exchanging teachings and learnings. Her presentation comes with a tribute to the products of her land and exudes its local gastronomic culture at its core. It is no coincidence that her research gave rise to iconic dishes such as ‘Sea urchin, Onion and Mate’, a masterful, simple and self-explanatory dish that meshes the ingredients that define it with yerba mate, a plant originated in the subtropical region of South America.

Brazil is a country that houses six different biomes (Amazon, Caatinga, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest, Pampa and Pantanal), its infinity of food is huge, vast and very little is explored. When acknowledging the abundance of Brazil’s biomes, one has to mention chef Bel Coelho, who develops beautiful research, presenting in her dishes ingredients of these biomes, seeking to praise the true heritage of land so fertile and so undervalued.

Brazilian gastronomic culture is not easy to map or simple to understand. It is not something that can be seen or described in a generalized way, by the sheer size of the country, by its various influences and these come together and manifest in different regions. There are very few theoretical studies on Brazilian cuisine and only a small number of chefs dedicate themselves to emerge in this journey. This is because, despite the richness in Brazilian cuisine, Brazilians still greatly appreciate and value what comes from outside the country. There is still an unfortunate belief from the majority that what is imported stands for better quality and more sophistication. However, it has been exciting to witness this present shift where more people are taking pride in the piquant lavishness Brazil has to offer. Brazil’s highly versatile gastronomic journey begins with influences from our Indigenous, Portuguese and African origins, accumulates other countries’ influences along the way and continues to pave its path by creating highly unique, flavorful and full of life experiences that reflect the soul of this cheerful, abundant country. All in all, what truly defines Brazilian gastronomic culture and its pleasures is not only the soil where products are born but also the people who inhabit it.