BEIRUT: More people of Lebanese descent live in Brazil than in Lebanon, as many as 7 million. As is the case wherever Lebanese plant new roots, so grows the affinity for its food traditions.
Walk into the airport terminal in Rio de Janeiro and the first edible you’re likely to find is a sfeeha meat pie or a platter of baked kibbeh, says Brazilian chef Paulo Machado. But while the South American country has adopted Lebanese dishes as part of its national cuisine, there is scant evidence of the reverse influence; Brazilian food is unknown here.
Machado travels the world educating people in different cities about the diversity of Brazilian cuisine. He and his bread-making friend chef Erik Nako were in Beirut this spring as part of a series of cooking events that sought to educate locals about a culinary heritage all but obscure in these parts.
The World Cup has certainly helped Machado’s cause to raise his home cuisine’s international standing, as writers and foodies are now seeking out the food fueling the world’s most-watched sporting event. Speaking from his home base in Campo Grande, Machado gave The Daily Star a rundown of what the millions of fans flocking to the country are gobbling up besides sports.
TDS: Because we’re narcissistic, start by telling us about the influence of the Lebanese?
Machado: First of all, I’m from Brazil in the center-west. And I’m from an area of Brazil that has a lot of Lebanese influence. I was born in a city called Campo Grande in Patanal and over there, we have a big influence from Lebanese culture.
TDS: Are there Lebanese dishes that have become adopted as national Brazilian cuisine?
Machado: We eat a lot of sfeeha and kibbeh. Some of them are very good, some of them are not [laughs]. Tabbouleh is the most popular salad in Brazil but is originally from Lebanon. I had a teacher from Lebanon who taught me Arabic food, and he used to tell me, ‘Paulo, when you do tabbouleh, you don’t just use so much grain.’ Tabbouleh is a parsley salad, not a burghul salad. Typically in Brazil, we use a lot of grain and just a little bit of parsley. I don’t know when it changed, maybe there was a lazy cook and now everybody does it that way.
TDS: I know that it’s hard to characterize the cuisine of a large country with so many different influences and styles of cooking, but if you could talk about the basic flavors that make up Brazilian cuisine, what are they?
Brazil is a huge country and with a huge amount of influence from three regional cuisines, but all of them lead to one culture, that is cozinha brasileira [Brazilian cuisine]. In each region and in each part, you have the influence of three regional cuisines; that is the Portuguese, the indigenous and the African. That melting pot makes the Brazilian food.
There are a few ingredients that are important to the whole country; for example, cassava or manioc. Cassava, there are many, many names for it, but it is a root like a potato and it is originally from the Amazon. Then you have other ingredients that are characteristically in Brazilian food, like the spices. We don’t have a very spicy food like for example Mexican food, but we always use onion, garlic and one kind of spice to begin a pot of stew, for example, like a moqueca, a fish stew or a meat stew. This always has a base of garlic and onion and a little bit of parsley and spices.
TDS: What are the most classical dishes visitors to Brazil are going to see all over the country?
Machado: They can look for capirinha, our national drink. Every foreigner that enters a bar to watch the Brazilian game, he’ll look for a capirinha and a pao de queijo. Pao de queijo is a Brazilian bread that is gluten-free because it’s made with cassava flour not made with regular flour, and it’s made with cheese also – originally from Rio de Janiero.
If you’re traveling around, you can also find regional food. For example, in the northeast you find more of the dried beef jerky. It’s very regional, you can find it very often.
In the cities by the ocean, for example in Rio de Janiero, you can find a lot of fish soup that you can drink you can combine that with cachaca [Brazilian rum]. It’s very tasty.
The acaraje is a kind of falafel that we have originally from Africa, it’s a kind of pastry that is made from the same ingredients as falafel, made with fava beans. You mix that with onion and a little bit of water and you deep fry it. The thing is you fry it in dende oil, it’s a kind of palm tree oil that comes from Africa also. Dende oil is very much used in the Santaria food. Acaraje is very tasty and also very spicy.
If you go to Amazonia, then you have food from native Brazil that is for example a stew called tacaca. Tacaca is made from cassava and the juice of the cassava. You cook this stew for a long time because it’s made with a kind of cassava called cassava brava, and it has a poison. So, you have to cook it for many hours so that the acid that is poisonous will go out from it. It’s amazing, very Amazonian and you only find it in the north of Brazil.
Each corner of Brazil has special dishes, plus all over you find dishes made with black beans and cassava.