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Capital Cuisine

Brasília, the capital of Brazil, is better known for its prize-winning ultramodern design and for the unfriendliness of the city to the people who live there. But the power town has its charms, the rich and varied food being one of them.

Sheryl Barbic

A city is like her food; cuisine reflects a city's personality. Brasília does not have the gastronomic reputation of São Paulo, South America's culinary capital, nor the seafood Rio de Janeiro can offer, or Bahian regional cuisine steeped in tradition. Brasília, like all other Brazilian cities, is a legacy unto herself. The cosmopolitan character of the capital city unites dishes from all over Brazil's immense landscape while also playing host to regional specialties from neighboring Goiás known for chicken stewed in saffron and sweet bread scented with nutmeg. More than merely sporting a cosmopolitan buffet, the capital has a culinary personality all its own, one that revolves around Brazil's abundant natureza.

In Brasília, one breathes politics as much air. At the end of December, prior to Fernando Henrique Cardoso's inauguration, a scandal rocked Brasília as the restaurant in the House of Congress closed due to gross health violations. It seemed like a bad joke the old cabinet played upon that of the new, a metaphor representing how the old administration that had served Brazil had become fetid like a piece of fruit past its prime. The kitchen thereby demanded a good cleansing before opening for business with a new presidential regime.

When Brazilians think of their capital, they see the center of politics housed in buildings that oftentimes look more like spaceships than habitable buildings. I am certain that many times Brazilians wish their government would be relegated to outer space. The futuristic architecture often intimidates on first glance, but Brasília is a city of interior spaces. Once you step inside the looming concrete masses you enter into luminous and welcoming spaces. Brasília is a formal city with gracious old-fashioned customs. Yes, the government lives in Brasilia, but so do many others.

Carved from the side of Goiás, Brasilia's personality shines with old-fashioned customs. A capital city only 35 years old, Brasília possesses a strong emerging personality. She is like a young girl, no longer a child and not quite a woman. As a city, Brasília is an adolescent; her mother is showing her how to walk like a lady, while her protective father is strict about keeping potential suitors away.

Architecturally designed for efficiency in the form of super quadras, you go bar hopping from one quadra to the next. When you go out with a friend to share a beer, you never know who you may run into and how late you will stay out. Unlike many large cities, Brasília has space in which to move and stretch your arms. The slogan no caminho do futuro greets drivers from billboards as you enter and leave the city. The slogan signifies Brazil's hope that her capital of impeccable motorways and futuristic highrises, the embodiment of progress and order, will lead the path to the country's future.

Brasília's answer to the beach is the Água Mineral, where everyone goes to see and be seen. The pools are fashioned after a lake, making use of natural springs and crystalline waters. The ritual swim and occasional walk along the trails is followed by eating hot boiled corn on the cob smothered in butter and salt while sipping a sweet caldo de cana (sugar cane juice).

Nestled in between apartment and federal buildings, Brasília has abundant gardens filled with fruit trees — coco, carambola, acerola, manga, goiaba, jaca, fruta do conde, jabuticaba — all are yours for the picking. The Brasiliense transform these fruits into exquisite sucos, vitaminas, and geladas. One afternoon we gathered pequi which we ate cooked with rice and stewed chicken.

The cuisine of Brasília combines the comida do sertão of the northern interior with the comida mineira, of neighboring state Minas Gerais. The hallmarks of the food of this region combine flavors heavy with indigenous influences. This cuisine pronounces itself with traditional tubers, fruit, vegetables, pork, and beef, borrowing from comida goiana (from the state of Goiás) a food characterized by free range chickens and saffron. Brasília's peppers are small and yellow, known as pimenta de cheiro, which translates to "pepper of perfume," a highly aromatic cousin of the habañero. Other favorites include: Palmito (hearts of palm), pão de queijo (cheese biscuits), arroz carreteiro ("Truck Driver's Rice," a dish of rice seasoned with dried beef), doce de casca de laranja (candied orange peel), and doce de figo (candied figs).

Within a three hour drive out of Brasília lies a paradise known as Itiquera, where on the hot summer days following New Year's Révéillon, we gathered at the home of some cousins. They had no telephone and didn't send invitations, but somehow everyone knew they were welcome. Throughout the month of January we gathered with many others to share wonderful times together swimming in the river and drinking beer under the shade of the mango trees. On this fazenda (farm) in neighboring Goiás, we enjoyed abundant mandioca (manioc), milho verde (corn), pimenta (pepper), abóbora (pumpkin), laranjas (oranges), e goiabas (guavas).

I have yet to meet a Brazilian who does not enjoy a good meal. One unifying trait Brazilians share is their love of good food. Rightly so, some of the best meals I have enjoyed have been in Brazil. Many Brazilians do not believe their new capital has a gastronomic reputation worth mentioning, but the Brasiliense are a people of outstanding cuisine.

Brasília is a capital city where you still see carts drawn by horses and there are swimming holes and waterfalls only a ten minute drive from home. I know Brasília will grow with time, she has already quintupled in size over the 35 years of her existence. Her spacious motorways will become swollen, while towering apartment buildings will leap higher toward the sky. But I hope Brasília will retain some of her girlish charm, the old-fashioned customs the countryside of Brazil's interior has graced her with as she grows into a woman of the world.

When an invitation to Brasília presented itself, I jumped at the chance. I told my friends I would study the food of Brasília. I now understand that my studies into Brazilian cuisine have only begun and I embrace the future as an opportunity to learn more about Brazil's many mouthwatering cuisines. So if you have occasion to journey to Brasília, whether to return home, conduct business, or visit loved ones — remember that Brasília is not merely a city of architecture and politics, but also a magnificent city of food, with charms all of her own.


Bolinhos de Queijo

Cheese Balls

Scented with thyme, bolinhos de queijo are a perfect complement to a tart glass of limeade or a glass of red wine.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1/2 pound Parmesan cheese, grated

1/2 pound Mozzarella cheese, grated

3 egg whites, beaten into peaks

3 tablespoons cornmeal

1 teaspoon thyme

Vegetable oil for frying

Method: In a mixing bowl, stir cheese together. Stir in thyme and cornmeal. Fold beaten egg whites into cheese.

Form cheese mixture into balls. Fry in hot oil until golden. Drain and serve.

Substitutions may be made by using different types of hard and semi-hard cheeses.

Sopa de Coentro

Cilantro Soup

This soup goes well with chicken, or if you're a cilantro lover as I am, all you'll need is a bowl of this soup, some good toasted bread, and you'll be in heaven.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 2 cloves garlic, crushed

6 large potatoes, peeled and diced

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon preserved pepper sauce

Juice of 2 lemons

1 cup cilantro (coriander)

Method: In a large pot heat soup stock over medium heat. Add diced potatoes and cook over high heat until tender.

When potatoes are cooked, strain from stock and transfer to blender or food processor. Retain stock for further use.

Wash and pat dry cilantro. Remove cilantro leaves from stems. Transfer cilantro leaves to blender or food processor. Add garlic. Puree potatoes, cilantro, and garlic together. Transfer vegetable puree to soup stock and return to heat. Stir together well.

Once soup has heated thoroughly, add lemon juice, pepper sauce, and stir.

Transfer to soup bowls and serve immediately.

Salada de Tomate

Tomato Salad

A basic salad of tomato, green onions, and cilantro dressed with olive oil and lime juice adds a simple sophistication to almost any dish.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 8 Roma tomatoes

1/8 cup green onions, minced

1/8 cup cilantro, minced

Dressing: 1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon wine vinegar

1 clove garlic, mashed

1/8 teaspoon salt

Method: In a salad bowl combine all ingredients for dressing and mix well. Slice tomatoes in rounds paper thin. Place tomato slices on top of dressing. Add green onions and cilantro. Toss well. Serve.

Frango à Goiás

Goiás Style Chicken

Scented with saffron and hot peppers, this is a well-loved dish throughout the interior of Brazil.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1 large chicken, cut in pieces

1 onion, finely diced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tomatoes, diced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon saffron strands, crushed

2 hot chili peppers, or

1 teaspoon preserved pepper sauce

Method: In a large skillet, heat olive oil. Add chicken and brown on all sides. Once chicken has browned, add onions and let cook until onions are translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add saffron and stir well. Let cook 4-5 minutes. Add tomatoes, peppers, and salt. Stir together well and let cook 4-5 minutes.

If chicken begins to stick to the pan, add a little water to prevent scorching. Cook until chicken is thoroughly cooked and no pinkness remains in the flesh. Serve.

Arroz com Pimenta

Pepper Scented Rice

Simple and delicious, this dish makes excellent use of highly aromatic Brazilian peppers.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups long grain rice

1 small onion, finely diced

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4-7 small hot peppers or 2 teaspoons preserved pepper sauce

3 1/2-4 cups water

Method: In a saucepan, sauté onion in vegetable oil until translucent. Add garlic. Stir well and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add rice and stir. Add 3 1/2 cups water to rice. Add hot peppers and boil.

Cooking Instructions for Rice: Do not stir the rice as it is cooking. Stirring will cause lumps. With a wooden spoon, make a small well in the middle of the rice, gently parting the rice to see how much liquid remains in the pot. Test rice. If the rice is still hard it will require further cooking. Check to see if you have sufficient liquid. If more liquid is needed, add as needed. If rice is cooked and a good deal of liquid remains, boil liquid off. If only a little liquid remains, reduce heat and allow water to evaporate. Check rice by tasting. If most of the liquid has boiled off and the rice is still hard, add another 1/2-1 cup of cold water. Cook until liquid has been absorbed and rice is fluffy. Serve.

Massa Sovada

Sweet Bread

Inherited from the Portuguese, in the interior of Brazil massa sovada comes scented with the air of nutmeg. Perfect for breakfast, as a simple dessert, or with an afternoon tea.

Makes 2 9" round loaves

Ingredients: 2 packages active dry yeast

1 tablespoon + 1 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup lukewarm water

5-6 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup lukewarm milk

3 eggs, beaten

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, grated

1 stick butter softened, cut in pieces

1 egg, beaten

Method: Preheat oven to 350° F.

In a small bowl, combine yeast, 1 tablespoon sugar, and lukewarm water. Gently stir contents. Cover with a towel and let stand for 10 minutes. Yeast mixture should bubble.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour, nutmeg, and salt. Stir together. Make a well in the center of the flour. Pour in yeast mixture, beaten eggs, softened butter, and milk. Work together into a dough. You may want to use your hands to work the dough together.

On a lightly floured surface, knead dough for 10 minutes. Place dough back into mixing bowl, cover with a towel, and allow to rise in a warm place 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Remove dough from bowl, punch dough down, and knead for another ten minutes. Split the dough in half and shape into two round loaves. Place loaves on a baking sheet. Brush the remaining beaten egg over the tops of the loaves. Bake at 350° F for 55-60 minutes, or until loaves are golden brown. Remove loaves from oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.

Slice and serve.


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