brazilian-cooking-school

Brazil’s History: Plate by Plate

When I took my trip to Iguaçu Falls earlier this year, I expected to see magnificent waterfalls, exotic wildlife, and endless lush forests. Who wouldn’t in this glorious part of Brazil that is considered one of the natural wonders of the world? What I didn’t expect to witness was a culinary tour of Brazil’s history, produced by the talented chef, Fabio Tavera.

“Why don’t we give value to simple things? We think, ‘oh this is from the south, the Amazon, it’s from immigrants’ – Casa do Chef is a response to all of this. We have great food here in Brazil and we need to break it down so people can understand. Understand what’s in our food, understand our people, understand our society.”

 

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Chef Fabio’s intro was merely a hint of what was to come. Having lived, worked, and traveled in Brazil over the past 15 years, I thought I knew a thing or two about Brazilian cuisine. All of that changed as Chef Fabio took the “stage” at his rustic and inviting culinary school called Casa do Chef. “After 16 years working in kitchens, now I am having the opportunity to present Brazilian food in a broader way, relating the historical and anthropological approaches, garnishing this experience with music, which is also my passion. Casa do Chef has been my dream for years.”

And I felt like I had just fallen into a epicurean dream! While my tastebuds were teased with the first dish from the Tupi, Chef Fabio walked us through the dish, dissecting this fish in a history lesson peppered with culinary facts. “The Tupi didn’t use salt at all; you won’t find it in Amazon cuisine. They used peppers and chiles as a preservation mode for meat and fish, and their curing technique is different. Their ritual of smoking is the fusion of the four elements – earth, water, air, and fire.”

 

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Watching Chef Fabio prepare the plates for our first course, I listened intently as he continued to describe the features of this prehistoric fish, pirarucu. “The pirarucu is the biggest scaled fresh water fish in the world. Because the fish scales are so huge, the only way to catch it is in the river during dry season when it gets stuck because of these strong scales. But that’s what makes the meat so good!”

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Dressing the fish with pineapple, roasted peanuts, and honey, Chef Fabio continued – his knowledge the perfect hybrid of TV favorites, History Channel and Food Network! “The Guarani Indians domesticated the pineapple and peanut, here in this area of South America. And when the Portuguese arrived, they noticed that the bees made honey from flowers. At this time in Europe, honey was of very poor quality, so this was one of the first Brazilian exports.”

Chef Fabio recommended starting with a bite of the jambu, an herb from Amazon forest, that has a strong aroma and gets the tongue numb, perfect to eat with this fish that’s been seasoned with fresh chiles – no spices or salt! Enjoying the balanced, smoky flavor, I marveled at how delicious this “sodium-free” dish was – and made a note to integrate some of these healthy techniques when I returned home. Chatting with Chef Fabio as he plated our next course, he shared that Japanese cuisine was one of his favorites because of the beautiful presentation and lightness of flavors. As you read on, you’ll see that same artful influence evident in all of Chef Fabio’s Instagram-worthy presentations.

When I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through his side-by-side comparison of moqueca, one of my favorites! Having been to Bahia, Brazil’s Northeast state known for its gorgeous beaches, I was already aware of the strong African influence in its culture, music, and food.

 

“This mixing of the trade routes with the Portuguese is really evident in what most people know today as moqueca baiana; the mango, lime, and coconut came from India. The cilantro from the Middle East, onions and garlic from the Orient. But what moqueca looked like 600 years ago is here on the left. Fish, urucum, oil from the native Brazilian coconut – babaçu, chili, and of course, no salt.”

Having sampled both, my tastebuds weren’t sure which way to go! I loved the caramelized, simple flavor of the native technique, but I also found the familiarity of the cilantro mingled with the coconut milk delicious. Luckily, I didn’t have to choose!

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Listening to Chef Fabio describe the fusion of foods from all over the world, I thought about the similarities between Brazilian and U.S. culinary history. Both countries had a strong Native Indian food culture that was often aligned with spiritual practices of the tribe. After the arrival of European settlers, much of that history was drastically changed, with many indigineous techniques lost. I felt really grateful to see Chef Fabio reviving some of those techniques here in his cooking school.

 

Next up on the Casa do Chef tasting menu – Carne de Sol, which Chef Fabio said was the perfect dish to highlight the Indian, Portuguese, and African influences. But as he explained, carne de sol is actually a misnomer! Finding out that I spoke Portuguese, Chef Fabio carried on in his native tongue, saying that it’s more of a “de lua, de noite, do vento” because of the aging process. And the description of his homemade clarified butter – well, I’m sure you can imagine how my stomach responded.

“Normally, manteiga de garrafa, or clarified butter, is done the French way – skimming the solids and the clarified butter remains. But this way – a heavy cream is reduced until it’s almost caramalized and solids remain, ending up more like a cheese.” My stomach screamed – “yes, please!”

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Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Chef Fabio walked us through the rest of this colonial dish. “We use the ancient method of soaking the abóbora, or pumpkin, in limestone for 10 minutes and then cook it in molasses. This is the African influence with the sugar cane grinders and the use of molasses.” The finishing touch? A hollandaise sauce, using that same delicious manteiga de garrafa…OMG!

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And finally, Chef Fabio’s presentation of feijoada. This is one dish that most tourists have tried on their trips to Brazil, and is what most consider Brazil’s national dish. “This food we call ‘Brazilian’ is new, developed in the last 100 years – at most! Through recipes and ingredients, my idea is to demystify feijoada, and enhance some things that we never thought we could.”

Chef Fabio’s history lesson on feijoada was as much a surprise for my Brazilian colleagues as it was for me. “Meat was rare for everyone in those times. The invented story of feijoada being a ‘marginal dish’ with scraps and leftovers that was fed to the slaves is false. All parts of the slaughtered meats were preserved because there was no refrigeration as we have today. So everyone ate the same thing. This notion that the diet of a slave and the main lord was different is a bit of a myth, with the exception of sugar, which was very expensive.”

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After snapping some shots of this tantalizing plate, I finally enjoyed this Brazilian classic, with Chef Fabio’s special touch. “You know feijoada has a Portuguese influence too, but theirs is with white beans; ours with black beans. Here it’s not deconstructed, just presented differently for more texture. And since the concepts have changed in this invented dish, I invented mine”, he said with a sly wink. Savoring each bite, I thought about how American cuisine is also a melding of immigrant influences, and the bevy of restaurants that are in my Los Angeles neighborhood: Mexican, German, Korean, Armenian, Peruvian. A true melting pot!

Nibbling on the most picturesque sampler of Brazilian dessert classics, I looked up to hear Chef Fabio emerge from the kitchen, serenading us with a flute performance. A true Renaissance man! Historian, musician, and talented chef – how lucky I was to have had this enlightening epicurean adventure through Brazil.

To book your visit to Foz do Iguaçu and experience this once in a lifetime opportunity at Casa do Chef, contact me today!

 

 

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As American As Mole

“I am an American discovering America”. These words by Marsden Hartley never rang truer than during my trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This enchanting artists’ colony has been on my travel bucket list for some time. I had no idea the rich history, both culturally and culinary, that awaited me in this southwestern town.

A lover of all things epicurean, I enrolled in a cooking class at the suggestion of my hotel concierge. Santa Fe School of Cooking hosts a wide array of hands-on courses and tasting menus, which made it hard to choose, but I ultimately decided on “Mole & More”. Mole, a dish with endless ingredients and prep time that would deter most home chefs, has always intimidated a seasoned cook like myself. Little did I know that our instructor, Chef Michelle Chavez, would guide us through the process with ease, providing helpful tips and tricks along the way.

Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class
Chef Michelle Chavez provides a historical introduction to our class

Michelle, equal parts historian, teacher, and foodie, began our four-hour session with an introduction that rivaled my AP US History class. During her talk, I learned more about this region of America than in my four years of high school history classes. “Every group of people who came through Santa Fe, be it on the Camino Real or the Santa Fe Trail, left an indelible impression on our food and culture. To remove one from our history would change our ways drastically”, shared Michelle as she pointed out the bountiful culinary traditions of those who had come before. “Corn, beans and squash, collectively known as The Three Sisters, were gifts of the native population, as well as the wine grapes, pigs, sheep, wheat and other cultivars brought by the Spanish.” She shared stories of the Pueblo, Zuni, and Oaxaca heritages, highlighting the often overlooked contributions of these Native Americans to this plentiful cuisine and culture.

Prepped ingredients ready for
Prepped ingredients ready for Michelle’s mastery

While Michelle mixed fresh beans, roasted fragrant chiles, and simmered Abuelita chocolate, she offered suggestions on everything from making bone broth to cookie-crumb crust. Scribbling down every word on my recipe sheets, I was eager to try these suggestions back home. With Food Network-style presentation, Michelle wove around the room with each course neatly timed. Each dish exceeded my palette’s expectations, and had a precise mixture of sweet and savory, all while offering that signature New Mexican spice.

As class came to a close, I had the opportunity to speak with Michelle and thank her for an unforgettable experience. After telling her about my spotty knowledge of American history, she recommended that I read Blood & Thunder by Kit Carson. Eager for a deeper insight to the history of New Mexico and the southwest, I added the book to my wish list. Not wanting the class to end, I asked Michelle for a photo and barraged her with other questions. Obliging, she mentioned that she was working on a book and that her travel bucket list location was “to the spice markets of Northern Africa and India; basically anywhere that has a strong food culture with great biodiversity.”

Weaving my way up through the center of town, I thought about my impromptu history lesson and what this area must have looked like centuries ago. I imagined towering rows of corn, fields of colorful squash, and an earthy expanse set against the stark blue sky and hovering mountains.

Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art
Entry to the New Mexico Museum of Art

Stepping into the courtyard of the New Mexico Museum of Art, I now understood why so many artists had been drawn to this magical place. The Will Shuster murals that lined the courtyard offered a glimpse into what life was like on this land long ago.

Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster
Museum courtyard lined with artwork by WIll Shuster

Once inside the museum walls, I walked through the exhibit enjoying a multitude of interpretations on early American life. From Diego Romero’s Romanticism-inspired piece Olympia to Fritz Scholder’s larger than life Pop-Art Super Indian, I was overwhelmed by the wash of hues and textures that this “Summer of Color” inspired exhibit displayed. One piece drew me closer, and I stepped towards it in a cautious manner. The Scout, by Warren E. Rollins, made me wonder what was going through this man’s head.  Capturing the uneasy feeling of a stranger approaching, “Do I retreat? What do they want? Where are they from?” Rollins’ work left me pensive, yet uncomfortable.

Detail of Rollins'
Detail of Rollins’ “The Scout”

Moving on to Taos Pueblo-Moonlight, the neighboring oil painting by E. Irving Couse, I longed to step into the picture. A familiar, yet somber mood came over me as I studied the family around the fire: an elder passing on generational wisdom to an eager child.

Leaving the museum, I crossed through the square and absorbed the fresh breeze on this crisp, spring evening. Inspired by the varied artistic expressions, I took some photographs of passersby and local architecture. While seeking out my next stop, a local vendor in the square recommended that I take a walk up to San Miguel Mission.

San Miguel, the oldest church in the United States, has a simple façade washed in the burnt almond color that is ubiquitous in Santa Fe. With each creaking footstep, I made my way along the pews, admiring the quaint and homely church.

San Miguel interior
San Miguel interior

Approaching the altar, I dropped in some coins and lit a candle for my nephew. As I knelt down at the wooden altar, I looked into the foundation of the church. Squinting to make out the placard below, I could see the ruins of an Indian home dated 1300. My eyes welled up with heavy tears, overcome with the emotion and burden from the day’s lessons. I silently wept for all those who had lost their homes and habitats in that early round of colonization.  Walking slowly out of the small church, I wondered what it would be like to be displaced and lose my house and heritage in the process.

Foundation of San Miguel altar
Foundation of San Miguel altar

Once home, I was eager to try my hand at the menu that Michelle had so synchronistically prepared during my trip. Lucky enough to live in Los Angeles where many of these ingredients can be found, I reviewed my notes and assembled a shopping list for my recreation of “Mole & More”. Noting a few holes in my ingredient list, I called the school and ordered a few things to complete my menu.

Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking
Spicy honey from Santa Fe School of Cooking

I created a new acronym, WWMD, as I repeatedly asked myself through the lengthy preparation, “What would Michelle do?” With a few tweaks and twists, I prepared a spicy and sumptuous feast for a few friends. My delectable dishes were devoured in what seemed like minutes. Sharing stories of everything from summer romances to systemic racism, my guests and I enjoyed a fragrant and fulfilling meal. Pleased with my performance, I recounted stories and insights from my trip to Santa Fe and vowed to return to the southwestern town before year-end.

Santa Fe, New Mexico airport
Santa Fe, New Mexico airport