It is hard, in a country as huge as Brazil, to make any accurate catch-all generalisations about the national cuisine. Think of it like this: What is the UK’s national meat? Bacon, you might say. Everyone knows it’s bacon. But then what about all the chicken we roast, the beef we fry, the pork we chop? Now think about this: You could fit 35 United Kingdoms into Brazil. Do you know how many kitchens that is? Do you know how many mouths that is?
The truth is that each Brazilian state – there are 26, by the way, plus one Federal District that holds the capital, Brasilia – has its own peculiarities, seasonings, traditions and tastes. That said, there are some consistent flavours that can be found all over the country. In this film, we explore the versatile ingredients used to complement the rice and beans that make up the average Brazilian’s daily diet.
Alex Atala, the country’s most famous chef, once said that the food that truly unites Brazil is cassava. And he is right in the sense that cassava – a root vegetable that is either bitter or sweet and fatally poisonous if eaten raw – is everywhere. It's used in desserts, juices, broths, pasta and as a seasoning. It can be boiled, baked, steamed, grilled, fried or mashed. Brazilian natives were chowing down on cassava way before the Portuguese rocked up in their boats – for the coast-dwelling Tupinambá tribe, the cassava remains a symbol of livelihood and celebration. On special occasions, the women of the tribe use the root to ferment a beer-like drink called Cauim. Besides having inspired other similar drinks, nowadays cassava is enjoyed as an appetiser in laid-back pubs and bars and also used in dishes at high-end restaurants.
In a new episode of FreshMadeBR, a partnership between VICE and APEX, we explore the origins of cassava and other traditional Brazilian ingredients that have made the journey from the appetites of native tribespeople to the affections of renowned chefs across the country.
Of all those featured in the film, tucupi is the ingredient that is currently hogging the limelight. Extracted from a type of cassava called a “manioc”, this golden yellow liquid is rich in cyanide, which means you need to be pretty careful when you’re getting ready to put it in your mouth. However, once in the pan, it undergoes a stunning transformation from deadly poison to charming aromatic broth, with light acidic notes capable of enchanting even the most refined palates. It's commonly paired with tapioca, poultry or finished with herbs, like another darling of Brazilian chefs, the watery rose apple, or jambu.
When jambu is added to the broth it thickens into a soup known as tacacá. A native Amazonian, this curious herb has a remarkable flavour. It’ll throttle your tastebuds with the numbing, fizzing sensation it leaves on the tongue, then follow it up with a spicy little finish. It’s less a herb, more an especially frenetic house party hurtling into its 11th hour in your mouth.
The jambu flower is also used in infusions, traditionally combined with brandy just in case the experience of drinking brandy isn’t already intense enough for you. Once again, the natives were among the first to employ this technique, and to many tribes in the north of the country the golden buds function as a powerful anaesthetic. Foods like jambu and tucupi show us how Brazil’s national cuisine has been subject to a gastronomical back-and-forth that has taken place over huge swathes of time, the origins – or the roots, if you’ll allow the pun – visible and preserved but adapted, modified. The key to Brazilian cuisine is transformation, and the flavours vying in any one dish represent something really special – centuries of pride in the fertility of Brazil.