Like a Portuguese baker preparing creamy pastéis de nata, to write this post I need to start with eggs. Yolks, to be specific. During the Colonial period, Portuguese convents and monasteries used the whites (clara) for starching clothes in their laundries, while the yolks (gema) were simply thrown out or fed to the pigs. At the time, Portugal was one of the world’s biggest egg producers, so surplus yolk, paired with an influx of sugar from its colonies, became the most convenient raw ingredients for the nuns and monks to use in their baking. They concocted various cakes and pastries, baptizing them with names like papo-de-anjo (angel’s double chin), barriga de freira (nun’s belly), and toucinho do céu (heaven’s lard).
The most famous of these cloistered desserts is the pastel de nata, otherwise known as the pastel de Belém, after the Lisbon district where the Jerónimos Monastery that developed it is located. Initially sold in neighboring villages as a source of revenue for the Catholic Church, the creamy pastries later entered the greater Lusophone world—Angola, Goa, Macau, Luanda, Cape Verde, etc.—and beyond, to countries of the modern day Portuguese diaspora including France, Canada, the US, and Australia. You can find the now traditional sweets sold alongside salgadinhos (fried finger foods) throughout Brazil. The centrality of yolks to Portuguese, and thus Brazilian, cuisine is clear. And interestingly, while a Brazilian living in Rio is called a carioca, those who are born and bred here proudly refer to themselves as carioca da gema.
A dessert borne of shortage, instead of excess, is the brigadeiro. It was created as part of an electoral campaign for Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes, an Air Force brigadier general who twice ran for president in the late forties. Due to World War II, eggs, milk, and sugar were rationed, and there was a shortage of imported foods typically used as fillings, such as European nuts and fruits. The chocolate powder Nescau, however, had just been introduced to Brazil. Thus, the brigadeiro was born: a sprinkle-encrusted ball made from condensed milk and chocolate powder. To support his candidacy, a group of women named the truffle after Gomes—a handsome and, at the time, unmarried man—and sold it with taglines like “Brigadeiro Brigadeiro, é melhor porque é solteiro” (Brigadier Brigadeir, he’s better because he’s single). While Gomes ultimately lost the election, his sugary namesake was a huge success, and is especially popular today at children’s birthday parties.
One of my favorite Brazilian treats is Romeu e Julieta (Romeo and Juliet): a layer of guava paste topped with a slice of Minas cheese. Just like Shakespeare’s passionate, albeit doomed, lovers, this salty-sweet combination is said to be the perfect pair. Other romantically inclined desserts include the beijinho (little kiss), a condensed milk and coconut powder truffle rolled in granulated sugar and topped with dried clove, and the bem-casado (happily married): sugar cookies with various fillings, such as doce de leite, which are served at the end of wedding festivities to bring the couple good luck.
Ride any bus in Bahia and you’re likely to hear a vendor with a tray of candy around his neck calling “Pé-de-moleque! Pé-de-moleque!,” luring you in with the drawn out “e” in “pé” (foot). Little boy’s foot, in this case, is peanut brittle made with brown sugar, molasses, and jaggery. In fact, much like the Portuguese “nun’s belly,” non-cannibalistic Brazilian cuisine includes lots of anatomical references. Olhos-de-sogra (mother-in-law’s eyes), for example, are prunes stuffed with a grated coconut and egg mixture, finished off with a pupil-esque piece of clove. Outside of Bahia—where the influence of West Africa is still strongly felt in spicy delicacies like moquecas and acarajé—Brazilian seasonings can actually be rather mild; the most common pepper is a small, red, medium-to-low heat variety called dedo-de-moça (young woman’s finger). But the strange names don’t stop at individual body parts. One specialty from Quirinópolis is chica doida (crazy girl): a dish with a porridge-like consistency made from green corn, pork sausage, and mozzarella. Not to mention Brazil’s most famous export, the cachaça, lime, and sugar cocktail known as the caipirinha (“little hillbilly).” Conversely, during Carnaval in Bahia, the crowd packed together to watch the parade is referred to as a food: pipoca (popcorn).
The Brazilianification of English words is a common phenomenon in all areas of life here, including food and drinks. Cocktail, for instance, is the same word Brazilians use to refer to a mixed drink, but it’s spelled coquetel and pronounced CO-keh-tail. There’s even a cachaça and red vermouth drink that literally means “cock tail” in Portuguese: rabo-de-galo. In the food realm, cheeseburgers are sold as X-burguers, because the letter X, Xis, is pronounced “shees,” which sounds like “cheese.”
However, the influence of foreign words and foods is no one-way street. Brazil’s growing presence on the international stage has led to its cuisine being imported around the globe. The churrascaria was its breakout star: steakhouses where every type of meat imaginable—gaucho-style filet mignon to chicken hearts—rotate between tables on giant skewers from which waiters dramatically saw off a slice for you. Chains like Fogo de Chão can be found all across the US today. And despite the variety of gluttonous delicacies in the Brazilian diet, the ingredient that has had the biggest impact on the American diet recently has been a health trend: Amazonian berries. Açai is a potent, dark purple berry rich in antioxidants that is commonly blended into a thick smoothie and served with bananas and granola (açai na tijela). In the US, you can now find the frozen variety at health food stores, although it is also being added to various energy drinks and touted as a weight loss tool in capsule form. Similarly, guaraná berries (the key ingredient for Brazil’s national soft drink, Guaraná) are being used in energy drinks as a caffeine substitute.
Walking through the grocery store in Rio, I often stop to read the labels of things I would never bother to examine at home, wondering about where the name and the recipe come from. One of the side-effects of living in a foreign country where you speak the language but aren’t a native speaker is that it makes you reflect on the strangeness of your own first language. While looking into the origins of Brazilian foods I started to think about all the English names that I’ve taken for granted, so accustomed to the sound that I no longer registered the meaning. I wonder if there’s a Brazilian in a candy aisle in Denver right now, shaking his head as he surveys the brand names: Jolly Ranchers, Payday, Smarties, Sour Patch Kids, Nerds.
Published May 14, 2014 Copyright 2014 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren