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Just Back From | Brazil

The New Brazilian Food Words by Paul Richardson

“As I would swiftly discover, Brazil's nova cozinha is less about technique and more about product; not so much about novelty as adding value to something that was already there.” 

In the beginning was Ferran Adriá and the new Spanish cuisine; then came the New Nordics, Peru, Mexico and Colombia—but now it’s the turn of a country whose vast scale, fabulous biodiversity, and variegated culture make it a convincing candidate for the world’s next great foodie destination.

Keen to explore the Brazilian gastro-scene at first hand, I recently made a reconnaissance trip to Sao Paulo, Latin America’s largest city and undisputed capital of the nation's food culture. As I would swiftly discover, Brazil's nova cozinha is less about technique and more about product; not so much about novelty as adding value to something that was already there. The country’s cooks and eaters are fast waking up to their country’s indigenous vegetables, its superb beef and fish, and its kaleidoscopic range of Amazonian fruits and roots. At MESA, the annual Sao Paulo food conference and product fair, I found coffee and cacao, Brazil nuts and cashews, but also unexpected delicacies like gin from the Amazon, salamis in the Italian style, and fragrant honeys from native bees. In my ignorance, I could never have imagined the country had so many artisan cheese makers and winemakers - or that fine olive oil from the arbequina variety is now being made in the Serra de Mantiqueira.

 

A common sight at MESA were the T-shirts emblazoned with the message ‘Mandioca é Amor’: manioc is love. The phrase refers to a staple Brazilian ingredient, cornerstone of the national diet and origin of the omnipresent farinha (´flour'). The rough-skinned manioc root is finally shrugging off its unglamorous image and, Cinderella-like, growing into its starring role as a symbol of the new Brazilian cuisine.

 

Out and about in Sao Paulo, I dined at some of the country’s most scintillating modern restaurants. But even in these temples of trendiness it was the native ingredients that stole the show. Chef Ivan Ralston at Tujú uses wild bee honey and Florianopolis oysters, vinegars made from native fruits like cupuaçu and jabuticaba, and makes sauces based on tucupí (manioc juice). Dinner at Helena Rizzo’s Maní was an experience of high-spec modern cooking, but Rizzo is generous in her use of local ingredients like pupunha, taioba leaves and ‘pimenta de cheiro’ pepper.

 

Meanwhile at D.O.M., a Sao Paulo classic among the finest in Latin America, the dishes emerge from the kitchen in a samba parade of color and exoticism. Ceviche of flower petals and seaweeds; roast quail with pineapple and açaí; Amazon pirarucu fish with a crispbread made of its own skin; all this is followed by chef Alex Atala’s disarming tribute to mandioca in the form of a crunchy tapioca pancake - an everyday Brazilian breakfast food raised to the heights of haute.

 

No wonder ‘Manioc is Love’ has become both a slogan and a rallying-cry. Brazil might be about to dazzle the world with the brilliance of its contemporary cuisine, but it's not about to lose touch with its roots.

 

Photo #02: Ricardo D'Angelo - D.O.M.

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