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Brazzil - Food - March 2004
 

Tasting Brazil…in Boston

Brazilian immigration has grown at such a pace in Massachusetts
that it has helped Portuguese vie with Spanish as the second most
widely spoken language in the state. Restaurants have sprouted
up all over. This is a boon to the rest of us, who get to savor the
flavors of Brazil without needing to travel further then a few miles.

Jenny E. Martinez Nocito


If you are a Bostonian already familiar with your neighborhood taquería, or tiny corner Latino eatery, you will be ready for the ambiance of most local Brazilian cafés—a few posters on the wall from South America depicting tall, lush green mountains or impossibly long tropical beaches, dim lighting, and tables reminiscent of yesterday's coffee shops—plain chipping linoleum, maybe covered with a plastic tablecloth.

But what these little cafés lack in atmosphere they make up for in flavor. Brazil's cuisine is becoming some of the trendiest in Boston for good reason: it's delicious. But maybe it's not that surprising. After all, it's almost guaranteed that any eatery attracting its largest customer base from the culture whose foods it prepares has got to be good—and you'll find Brazilians eating at those tables anytime, day or night.

Of course, we're talking about a country only a smidgen smaller than the United States, where there is enough variety from different regions to please any diner. Six years ago, most restaurants in Boston only served the cuisine typical in the area that the proprietors were from, which back then was primarily the central state of Minas Gerais. These immigrants were accustomed to a diet heavy on beans, rice and meat.

Now the menus have broadened considerably, to reflect all of the different backgrounds of Brazilian immigrants. Brazil is a country as varied as the United States in food traditions, customs, and habits. Much of this is dictated by geography—foods are raised and consumed locally—and historically poverty as well, as methods of food preservation were created without the benefit of refrigeration in a hot climate, and preparation was dictated by ingredients that were cheap and available.

In recent years, Brazilian immigration has grown at such a pace that it has helped Portuguese, the national language of Brazil, vie with Spanish as the second most widely spoken language in Massachusetts. While many people moving here come as families, huge numbers are men who come alone, working to send money home to their wives and children. Since cooking isn't traditionally the man's role, most don't know how to prepare the foods they are used to eating, and so they turn to the restaurants that have sprouted up in many area cities and towns.

Brazilian Meat

This is not only great for them but also a boon to the rest of us, who get to savor the many flavors of Brazil without needing to travel further then a few miles. Many people native to Brazil will tell you that some of the tastes are not exactly the same in this country as they are "at home." Meat is a prime example of this phenomenon, primarily because of the differences in raising animals and curing meat between the two nations.

In Brazil, the states of Mato Grosso and Goiás are largely open ranches, and meat is always sold fresh—excepting a method of sun-curing meat practiced in the Northeast (see below). In the US, a much smaller percentage of meat is free-range, and it is often frozen before sale. But the preparation of Brazilian food in this country remains traditional, and the results are consistently delicious.

Because there have been Brazilians emigrating to Boston from all parts of Brazil in the last decade, all or most of the varied cuisines from different regions are now available in any given restaurant here, in order to best appeal to everyone. On one menu one is likely to see cuisine from everywhere in the country.

For example, in the northern Amazon regions people eat rice and beans, some chicken, and plenty of seafood from the ocean and rivers. In the Northeast, which is the driest part of the country, typical products are dried meat, chicken, and sweets made from sugar cane. In the central and southeast states of Brazil dietary staples include the ubiquitous beans and rice along with some pork, chicken, and dairy—but little beef, since cows are raised for milk, and few vegetables, which don't grow as well there.

In parts of the south, pasta is common. To a Brazilian, being in a Boston Brazilian café is the equivalent of an American eating at an American buffet that served Texas BBQ, New England Clam chowder, Southern hush puppies, and everything in between—all in one place, by people who really know how to cook it.

What does all this mean to Bostonians, then? Well, it means that there is plenty of terrific food in your future if you are ready to try something new. Some of the food may seem familiar, such as the ever-present beans and rice—which, despite their seeming commonality never fail to surprise and delight the tastebuds with their layers of rich, salty flavor, giving us a big hint as to one of the reasons why they are such a dietary staple (apart from their economical price). But there are also plenty of new tastes to bite into. Here is a short list of some of the more uniquely Brazilian fare you may want to try.

The Goods

Feijoada: Brazil's national dish. It is the customary "Saturday night special" in Brazil, and many restaurants have it on their weekend menus in this country. Buteco, Boston's oldest Brazilian restaurant, is known for their delicious and traditional preparation of this heavy, meaty dish. As the ingredients—primarily beans, meats, and seasonings—are simmered together for hours their flavors meld, and they take on a stew-like consistency that is rich and filling: South American comfort food.

Eduardo Modesto, a local Brazilian, describes it as "delicious and intensely flavorful; it is hard to separate the tastes of the individual ingredients," because they are cooked together so long and take on each others' earthy flavors of salt, meat, and black beans. The meats traditionally used are fresh pork and carne seca, or "dried meat," though these days many different meats can be added. It is usually served in layers with rice on the bottom, covered with the bean/meat mixture, topped with pieces of meat and farofa (see below). Collard greens (couve) are frequently served alongside.

The story behind feijoada is that it evolved from a dish created by African slaves who were given the throwaway, or "undesirable" pig parts like ears, tails, and feet to make their meals (though generally speaking these days you can count on more commonly eaten cuts of meat being used). Rarely made at home because of the amount of time and work it requires, this dish is served in almost every restaurant, from casual to fancy.

Farofa: This side dish is eaten in the north, northeast, and southeast regions of the country. It's typically eaten every day, alone or on top of rice, beans, or meat. At its essence, farofa is manioc or cassava flour (manioc is a root vegetable, similar to a potato) that is fried with butter and salt. In the North it is usually served `dry,' while in the Southeast it is often mixed with olives, eggs, prunes, bacon, sausage, carrot, nuts, bananas…the list goes on. Most typically in restaurants it is "straight up" and served alongside an entrée. It is similar in texture to coarse dry breadcrumbs, and depending on the ingredients it is mixed with, it can be either sweet or savory.

Churrasco: The Midwest Grill in Cambridge serves up a fabulous Brazilian BBQ in a style modeled after the churrascarias ("BBQ joints") in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with meats cooked on a spit, or rodízio. Usually, if this is made at home, it's done only for a crowd, but in a restaurant they serve up platters created for one person. Be prepared—it's usually a lot of food.

It will include meat (the more people, the more variety, but the choices are usually steak, chicken, pork, and sausage), and sides usually consist of farofa, salad, rice, beans, fries and sauces. A great way to sample a lot of kinds of food in a single order.

Maionese: A potato-based salad that can include tuna, raisins, carrots, olives, green beans, and mayo.

Mandioca com Carne de Sol: Oasis Restaurant in Medford offers this salty dish, made from a type of beef produced in the northeast of Brazil where there is typically very little refrigeration (this is the primary exception to fresh meat throughout Brazil). To preserve the meat, pieces are cured with heavy salting and left out in the sun to dry; hence the name, carne de sol, or "meat of the sun." The dish is a combination of this meat and fried cassava (mandioca)—salty and delicious. A Brazilian favorite.

Couve: Kale, but as perhaps you have never seen it before. Allston's Café Brazil prepares it in the traditional manner: sliced into thin ribbons and sautéed with garlic, oil, and seasonings that can include bacon fat, sometimes topped with thin slices of orange. It tastes like a mouthful of garlicky, crunchy ribbons—absolutely yummy. A great way to get your greens!

By the Pound

"Comida a Quilo": "Food by the weight" This is the equivalent of an American buffet, and a hugely popular Brazilian phenomenon, both in Brazil and the US. It's a terrific way to get a lot of tastes of different foods instead of just one meal, especially if it's all new to you. Meals are pretty cheap, usually ranging from about $3.50-$4.50 per pound of food. Brazilians flock to buffets, both at lunchtime and at dinner. Almost every Brazilian restaurant worth its salt has one, and the bigger the restaurant, the bigger and more varied the buffet.

Café Belo, a chain of Brazilian restaurants which started in Brighton, offers an excellent variety. A sampling of items offered includes white rice, rice with vegetables, brown beans (from the Northeast) and black beans (more common in the South), moqueca (a fish ragout made with any combination of seafood, stewed with tomatoes, cilantro, onions, and sweet peppers, possibly with coconut milk, palm oil, or hot flavorings as well), fried fish, meat and chicken each cooked in several different ways (fried, grilled, BBQ), vegetables including salads, beets, couve, and salpicão (a mixture of shredded carrots, potato, green beans, and corn mixed with mayo), and desserts, including pudim (a rich pudding made with condensed milk), bolo (cake) and mousse. The exact offerings, of course, will depend on the restaurant and may vary from day to day.

Suco: Juice. If the café you choose has fresh squeezed juices, be sure to try at least one. Tempting and exotic choices can include mango, cashew, passion fruit, and guava. Two or more can be blended for a real treat. In Brazil almost all juices are fresh—canned or bottled versions are rare.

Maria Alice Smolka, a local Brazilian, notes that in Boston, Brazilian food is "very in fashion now; people are recognizing it as something new, reasonably priced, and delicious." So for your next Saturday night out why not taste Brazil firsthand—gather a group of friends at your local Brazilian restaurant and order a fabulous feijoada…and be even cooler then the fresh-squeezed juices.

Locations of Brazilian Restaurants Mentioned in Article:

Buteco
130 Jersey Street
Boston
617-247-9508

Café Belo
181 Brighton Ave
Boston
617-783-4858
(Café Belo has expanded to 8 locations throughout the city; this is the original)

Café Brazil
241 Cambridge Street
Cambridge
617-789-5980

Midwest Grill
1124 Cambridge Street
Cambridge
617-354-7536

Muqueca
1093 Cambridge Street
Cambridge
617-354-3296

Oasis
373 Main Street
Medford
781-396-8337


Jenny Martinez Nocito is a registered dietitian/nutritionist & food writer who worked for several years with Brazilians in the Boston, MA area. Currently she is living in Italy. She can be reached at jmartineznocito@yahoo.com.



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