Our renowned Brazilian chef in London gives readers her exclusive take on modern and contemporary Brazilian cuisine
It’s an important time for Brazil’s cuisine. Perhaps it took us a little longer than some countries, but we are fully primed for the gastronomic revolution that is redefining our culture of food and drink.
Peru and Mexico pioneered the trend of reinventing their kitchen exploits, and even went one step further: they have successfully transformed themselves into hot destinations for tourists of a certain culinary persuasion.
Peru, for example, injected a modern twist to many of its dishes, resulting in a more healthy and vibrant approach to some of their mainstay recipes. And it worked. Ceviche was once a generic South American dish, but today is more specifically famed for being Peruvian: it has become fashionable. And the fact that you could find all the necessary ingredients pretty much anywhere means that recipes like this are easy to try out at home.
Nowadays we all have unlimited access to endless recipes, and information pertaining to their origins and influences. The Internet is a boundless cookbook detailing dishes with countless interpretations. This interpretation, however, does not necessarily mean being disloyal to the original recipe or denying its roots. On the contrary, it is more a case of modification, a tweak here or there, to ensure that the revamped version is adopted by an increasingly demanding world. If a chef, beyond re-creating a dish, can leave his or her mark on a classic, it can be very inspiring.
I love reinvention in the kitchen and people often ask me where my creations come from. No one creates, I say, we just re-create: everything is borrowed. Us chefs, naturally, draw inspiration from our colleagues. The important thing, though, is to add your own personal touch and interpretation when using an established recipe.
Massimo Botura, a famous chef in Italy, was once heavily criticised for attempting to modernise certain traditional dishes. However, in 2011, car problems caused several chefs to stopover in Modena and they decided to dine in his restaurant. His persistence in modernity paid off: today the Osteria Francescana boasts three Michelin Stars and, in 2016, won first place in Restaurant magazine’s “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants”.
People often think that to prepare a classic Brazilian dish you need to buy the necessary ingredients in a Brazilian store. However, here in England, I buy them from all kinds of retailers that specialise in products from Sri Lanka, India, China, Thailand, Japan, Portugal, Ghana, Jamaica and so on. I find jackfruit, chayote, tamarind, cassava root, and even sugar cane, in these stores. What has impeded Brazilian cuisine over the years is a lack of awareness. I make it my duty here in the UK, every day, to lift the lid on our fascinating culinary culture.
Many Brits, for example, assume that Brazilians survive on barbecue meats and beans. When I was a contestant on MasterChef, people would stop me on the street and tell me that they never imagined that Brazilians would cook with chilli, coconut milk, okra and dried shrimp. Being from Bahia, I used and abused these ingredients during the filming.
Introducing people to our world of gastronomy arouses genuine interest in our history. People want to know who created the recipe, and what influences and changes have been incorporated over time. There are often so many legends and stories behind a modern-day recipe, and I find it extra enticing when a dish has its own plot.
I once did an event for a network of hotels in Europe, the first of which had been built in Bethlehem. So that’s where I got my inspiration. The first dish was “duck with tucupi sauce”. At the base of the dish I put wet grass with wood chips and dry ice. I created a smoked wood infusion, and when we added this to the dry ice the smoke permeated the grass on the dish and the smell of wet forest filled the hall. It was more than just a traditional dish. It was more sensory that that, it was almost theatrical.
This is how I spread the good word about Brazilian cuisine in London: by researching history and telling its story.
We do, however, need to fully appreciate the relationship between food and people. For some, the act of eating is a sacred ritual. Food, for most, is not merely a means of sustenance, it is one of our greatest pleasures. For many, the table is the most important piece of furniture in the house, because it is where we gather friends and family. This is where we create fun-filled moments with the people we love.
Brazil has one of the most exotic and diverse cuisines in the world. But the only dish than unites a nation is “rice and beans”. Each region has had a distinct impact on its people. In the Northeast, for example, there is a strong African influence due to the influx of Africans during the slave movement, whilst in the South, European influences dominate due to high concentration of migrants from continental Europe.
To showcase our cuisine is to promote who we, us Brazilians, truly are. In Brazil, we tend to give disproportional value to things that are imported. I remember a friend of mine once asking if I would bring her a jar of blueberry jam back from the UK, I said, “No way! We have jabuticaba in Brazil and it’s far nicer”.
In London, people seem to eat potatoes with just about everything. However, I often substitute potato for cassava root, as I do when I make the British classic, Shepherd’s Pie. When preparing a Sunday roast, a much-coveted meat-based meal served with Yorkshire pudding, I serve it with tropeiro beans, which loosely translates as “cowboy beans”. One American client once even asked me to include “cowboy beans” when I was designing his traditional “Thanksgiving” lunch. I thought it was fabulous, knowing that we can successfully infuse American tradition with Brazilian cuisine!
Gastronomy in general is an ever-changing art that seeks to meet the tastes and demands of an increasingly discerning public. If we fail to accept and adapt to this trend then we are soon left behind.
People have become ever more concerned about what they eat: the fashion for healthy diets is a global phenomenon. The most prudent approach for me is sustainable cooking, that is, knowing where your food comes from. When I arrived in England hardly anyone used to buy free-range eggs; they got them from eggs farms, which were considerably cheaper. Nowadays free-range eggs outsell all other classes of egg. However, on-going publicity and public education are fundamental if we want to change habits that have harmful impacts on our environment.
Teaching people about the importance of protecting our planet and, if possible, changing our eating habits is critical. Where is the sense in wanting to be a vegetarian in London and then eating an avocado imported from Israel? It is surely better for you to eat the seasonal fruits and vegetables that your own country produces.
For Brazilian gastronomy to advance we have to be aware of our own habits, and to preserve the environment. This would be sufficient impetus to unite us as a people and fight for a common cause: promoting a sustainable Brazilian cuisine to the world.