The dish that defines Brazil

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Beans are a source of inspiration for songs and poems; and the country registers more than 4,000 varieties, from feijão carioca (pinto bean; consumed in São Paulo) to feijão de corda (a sub-variety of black-eyed peas, common in the north-eastern state of Ceará) to feijão manteiguinha-de-santarém, which is consumed in the Lower Amazon region. As renowned anthropologist Luís da Câmara Cascudo affirmed, for Brazilians, a meal without beans is incomplete.

But far from an arbitrary phenomenon, the symbolic power invested in an ordinary legume (whose pods provide the seeds we eat) also tells the story of Brazil’s turbulent socio-political history.

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Before Brazil gained independence in the 19th Century, its inhabitants had long been feasting on beans. Although the first records of beans date to the 17th Century (one of them in the travelogue of Dutch explorer Johan Nieuhof, who travelled across the territory from 1640 to 1649), Brazil’s Indigenous communities were eating the seeds long before colonisation.

According to food sociologist Carlos Dória, author of The Formation of Brazil’s Cuisine, a native bean species from Peru (Phaseolus vulgaris, known as “common bean”) arrived in Brazilian territory from Peru thousands of years ago, washed along in the currents of the Amazon and Solimões rivers.

But beans were never a key ingredient in the Indigenous diet. Instead, the popularisations of beans is a post-18th Century phenomenon that is closely related to the history of Brazil’s inland colonisation. In order to explore and settle Brazil’s interior, settlers needed a legume that was nutritious and easy to grow in all climates, including the semi-arid. That legume was beans.

Along with their expansionist ambitions, Portuguese settlers and their descendants brought with them an Iberian bean-eating tradition as well as beans species from the Mediterranean and their African colonies, including the black-eyed pea from West Africa, a region with a similar climate to Brazil’s.

One of the most famous bean-based recipes, feijão tropeiro (trooper beans; a combination of dry meat, red beans and cassava flour) refers to Brazil’s historical “troopers” – the men in charge of opening roads and taking much-needed goods, from fabric to salt to soap, into the interior – most notably during the 17th to 19th Centuries.

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