Comfort food to many means meat and potatoes or something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy (goulash is another example). However, to me that feeling comes from eating Brazilian food. But when I mention the country, I don’t mean the meat-rich dishes made famous here via the many churrascarias that have spread around the US (I even ran into one in Cleveland a couple of years back), but the lesser-known ones from the northeastern part of the country.
Similarly to the rest of the Americas, Brazilian cuisine is highly influenced by the different immigrants who made the country their home throughout its history, such as Italians, Lebanese, Poles, Portuguese and Japanese. Many dishes brought from those countries have been reinvented and adapted and are now identified as genuinely Brazilian, even if visitors recognize their origins when tasting them during their visits to the country.
When Renata and I were in Rio in 2009, they served jam-filled pancakes that she immediately identified as Polish naleśniki, but I am quite sure if we’d asked the cook he or she wouldn’t know that. Germans brought their sausages and pork Kassel, the Italians their pasta and the Portuguese their love of seafood – which all came into the melting pot and became something new.
No continent, however, has influenced Brazil’s culinary as the West Africans brought to the country as slaves in the mid-16th Century. Many of these enslaved Africans worked in their masters’ kitchens and gradually changed their Portuguese dishes using materials found in the land. Africans also introduced palm oil, (an unfiltered version also found in many Jamaican dishes) coconut milk and rice while learning to use indigenous plants like cassava and cacao.
Today, Brazil is the country with the largest amount of Afro-descendants in the world, and their presence in the country’s foods can mostly be felt in the city of Salvador, in the state of Bahia (which some visitors compare to New Orleans). The state’s signature dish is moqueca (pronounced mo-KE-ka), a moderately spicy tasteful stew that brings together many flavors alongside the indispensable dende (pronounced den-DEH – the African word for palm oil). In Ceara we have the baiao de dois, which is basically rice and beans cooked together. It is not that different from the Jamaican rice and peas or the Dominicans’ arroz con frijoles, but it retains its own personality by using local ingredients easily found in the region.
2 lb. fish fillets (tilapia or other firm fish)
2 large tomatoes, chopped and seeded (canned diced tomatoes are OK)
2-3 tablespoons palm oil
1 can coconut milk
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced and seeded
2 malagueta peppers, chopped (red pepper flakes can substitute. Fresh Jamaican peppers also work)
Salt and black pepper to taste
2-3 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
Over medium heat, Melt the palm oil in a large saucepan and add the garlic and onions and sauté until tender. Add the bell and malagueta peppers and sauté for about one minute. Add the coconut milk and the tomatoes and let it simmer for about five minutes. Add the fish and continue simmering until cooked through. Serve immediately over white rice. This dish can be paired with un-oaked chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio.