Her Highness, the Ingredient!
Brazil is plural. It is a country of contrasts, where diversity is found in every aspect in the life of its people. The same goes for Brazilian cuisine. Choosing a single element to sum up Brazilian cuisine is at the very least challenging, since we are talking about a massive country with over 8.5 million square kilometers of territory and a population of over 200 million. Its people are a melting pot of different ethnic groups, including its indigenous people, Europeans and Africans.
In addition to the multiculturalism, the diversification in Brazilian cuisine is also the result of the differences in the climate, terrain, soil types, vegetation and available raw materials that typify each region of the country. When asked about the factor that best explains Brazil's particular spot in the food world, renowned Brazilian chefs Mara Salles and Carole Crema, are unanimous in their response: the quality of local ingredients is the biggest differentiator in Brazilian cuisine.
"Our cuisine is very much tied to the natural quality of the ingredient and tied to ground-based kitchens, outdoor cooking fires, the wood-burning stove, the fruit on the tree. We have still not undergone more ancient processes of transforming the ingredient. The cuisine does not have a lot of transformative processes," says Mara Salles, a chef at the Tordesilhas restaurant, located in the city of São Paulo, in southeastern Brazil.
She recalls that this pure relationship between Brazilians and ingredients has its origins in the country’s indigenous roots. "The geography in Brazil made everything very easy for the indigenous people. We have a more favorable climate. In other countries in Latin America, such as Peru and Bolivia, in the Andes, the native people had serious problems with temperature; they had to make preserves, store food during the cold season, preserve potatoes in ash, that is, they had so many techniques that we didn't need. The native people here in Brazil harvested and ate. So, we ended up incorporating more of this natural quality, this simple thing, which makes the ingredient stand alone, makes it a protagonist," says Mara.
Carole Crema, a cook and pastry chef at La Vie en Douce, also located in São Paulo, believes that local Brazilian ingredients are even better than those used in other famous regional cuisines around the world. "For example, there is a lot of talk about how amazing Mediterranean food is because of its amazing ingredients. But ours are much more incredible. We have an ingredient-based cuisine. It's very regional, very diverse. Brazilians in the north eat maniçoba, fish from the river. In the northeast they also eat a lot of cassava, coconut, there’s a huge variety in local fruit. This is Brazil. Our culture of food revolves around good ingredients," says Carole.
And the chefs are right. The care and creativity that each region in Brazil uses to incorporate ingredients and local raw materials into their cooking has been built over the history of this interesting melting pot that characterizes Brazilian cuisine.
Dishes made using typical coastal fish come from the famous northeastern culture, while "manteiga de garrafa," a type of clarified butter, and typical Brazilian jerked meats like "carne-de-sol" and "charque" represent the flavors of the sertão region. "The food of the northeast is one of my favorites, especially Bahian food. I like the African mix of coconut with fish and peppers," shares chef Carole Crema.
At the other end of the country, in the south, in addition to the traditional gaucho grilled meats, the European influence on the local cuisine is also unique. This influence comes from the significant Italian and German colonization of the region from 1880 to 1930.
And in the central-west region, the peculiarity of regional ingredients sets the original tone of recipes, where the stars are freshwater fish, guariroba palm, different types of pirão and fish broths, among other dishes.
In the cooking of the southeast, one of the country's wealthiest regions, the cuisine of the state of Minas Gerais is among the most prominent. With its significant Afro-Indigenous influence, main ingredients include annatto, cassava, corn and native sprouts, in addition to pork and chicken, dishes such as arroz carreteiro (a type of dirty rice), tropeiro beans and cracklings make the food of Minas Gerais one of the richest, most flavorful and most appreciated in all of Brazil.
"The cuisine of Minas Gerais has this rich quality of having learned from lots of people that came from elsewhere and left a very valuable heritage of flavors, dishes and rules that local cooks learned very well," says Mara Salles.
Not only has food from northern Brazil become more popular in the country itself in recent years, but it is also known to delight foreign visitors. Exotic and made using indigenous techniques, it is a cuisine that is dominated by the fruit, fish and vegetables exclusive to the region.
"Every type of food in Brazil has something special; they are all notable for something. But I would say that Amazon cuisine, because of the distance and how hard it is to access, is the most entrenched. I love it," says Mara.
The two chefs think that the originality of Brazilian cooking is what currently guarantees that the country has such a high profile internationally, gaining more and more prominence among the world's best cuisines. This is partly due to a movement started a few years ago and led by popular local chefs and by trade media, which focuses precisely on appreciation of genuinely Brazilian ingredients.
"Brazilians have surely begun to appreciate their products more in recent years. There is more of a focus on family farmers, in addition to a more intense exchange within the country itself between the different types of cuisines we have," says Carole Crema.
For Mara Salles, Brazilian cuisine today is "returning to the natural quality of the ingredient, to a pure, good, clean product of good origins that is fresh.
"I see a tighter connection between the cuisine and the product, with the premise of not interfering so much in the ingredient, of showing it how it truly is, with its skin, leaves and seeds. This aesthetic beauty of the pure ingredient has even been very much explored. It is a natural quality that has everything to do with our cuisine," says Mara.