Friday, September 12, 2008


The Portuguese experience was different from the Spanish. The Portuguese were used to tropical climates because of their conquests in Africa, so they were more predisposed to the tropics than the Spaniards. Gilberto Freyre, in his classic work, The Masters and the Slaves attributes the Portuguese success to their ability to blend in, intermarrying with the local peoples wherever they went, whether it was Africa or in the Americas. When they landed in the region that is now Brazil, they quickly took Indian wives and embraced many Indian foods such as cassava (yuca), which became a very important part of their diet. Like the Spaniards they also brought their own foods, including sugar cane, salt cod, olives, sausages, wine for cooking, and the widespread use of eggs, sugar, cloves and cinnamon that the Portuguese had inherited from the Moors. They also brought dishes such as couscous, codfish cakes, and pork with clams, which became typical of Brazilian cuisine.

The Portuguese realized from the beginning the importance of the forest as a source of food, but they had to depend on the Indian women to teach them how to use those resources. The Tupi- Guarani Indians had been growing cassava for about 5,000 years in the Amazon forests of Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela. It was the bread of the natives of those areas, and the Portuguese adopted it in all its forms, and it became the basis of their diet, almost to the exclusion of wheat. I will talk more about this important root in a future post.

Later on, when the Portuguese women started to arrive, Indian women taught them how to make all kinds of delicate confections with the cassava. They also taught them the process of fermentation needed to prepare some of their specialties. This is the reason why the contribution of the Indians to the Brazilian cuisine survived.

The African influence was of tremendous importance in the development of the Brazilian cuisine. The slave trade started in 1538 and lasted through the nineteen century. Most of the slaves that came were from the west coast of Africa. By the time the slaves gained their independence 400 years later, about 10 million Africans had arrived in Hispanic America. The greatest concentration of slaves was in Portuguese lands: the Caribbean and Brazil. Many slaves lived together on the large coffee and sugar plantations, in groups that became like small towns, and this is the reason they were able to keep their culture and traditions largely intact. They brought their food, music, dance and religious practices, all of which became a very important part of the culture of the countries where there was a concentration of slaves, such as Brazil.

For more information on the Brazilian Experience see the Introduction of The South American Table, published by Harvard Common Press.

In the next post I will feature Sofrito, one of the first Creole specialties.

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