Carnival in Brazil
In the Christian faith, the onset of February usually brings to mind the start of their ritual fast known as Lent. The devout all over the world will sacrifice some level of personal comfort as a test of their spiritual devotion, leading up to the Easter holiday. However, before embarking on their forty-day abstinence, an annual celebration of indulgence will occur. In America, we know this as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, but much of the world celebrates this occasion as Carnival.
When it comes to Carnival in the USA, most Americans look to the southern culinary mecca of New Orleans. Thousands will make the pilgrimage for the large parades, wild parties, and the best cajun and creole cuisine around. The city definitely has the foothold on Mardi Gras, but if there was ever a gleaming global capital of the yearly Carnival celebration, it would have to be Brazil.
Carnival in Brazil
The country of Brazil encompasses over half the land that makes up South America, and is the fifth-largest country in the world, practically a superpower in its own right. While its population are vastly divided by culture, wealth, and space, Carnival is the one time of the year when the Brazilian people unite as one in celebration.
If you imagine the size of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, multiply it by twelve and you’ll get a picture of what Carnival in Brazil is like. Major cities and small villages are awash in bright colors and festive rhythms, all a cultural mash of the traditions of the early tribes, the Portuguese who settled later, and the many Africans who were brought as slaves. It’s a unique mixture of sights and sounds.
While the celebrations span all over the country, most of the world is focused on the city of Rio de Janeiro. What started in the 18th century as simply residents throwing mud and food at one another evolved into one of the largest and grandest parades on the planet, with marchers and dancers dressed in colorful costumes, and the air filled with the percussive sound of Samba.
You can’t have a proper party without good food, and Brazil is not one to disappoint. When exploring the culinary tradition of the South American giant, I want you to bear in mind two things. First, Brazilian cuisine is NOT the same as Mexican cuisine (as some narrow-mindedly assume anyone south of the border eats the same thing). Second, there is way more to Brazilian food than just grilled steak (churrasco).
Brazilian cuisine is a mixture of the ancient dishes the indigenous tribes of South America combined with the later influence of Portuguese settlers, and added splashes of flavors brought by African slaves and even some Arabic influences. Dishes involving rice and beans are a staple, as are starches like pasta, polenta, and potatoes. Tropical fruits and root vegetables play a big role in many dishes, adding both flavor and color. Beyond pork and beef, seafood is a popular protein to the Brazilian people, with simple dishes and complex stews featuring fresh fish and crab appeasing many a palette in the region.
My curiosity of the cuisine stemmed from visiting local restaurants here in Chicago, and in my goals of exploring food beyond Europe, I wanted to see what Brazilian food is beyond the steakhouses. I’ll also add in the recent influx of social media fans from Brazil. Granted I’m not sure if they like this site, or just like the name (Culinaria means “Cookery” in Portuguese). Regardless, I felt their cuisine and culture should have a place here.
So the first Brazilian dish I want to share with you is often seen as their national dish. It’s also a shining symbol of the true meaning behind Carnival. Beyond the parties and celebration, the name “Carnival” comes from the term “carnivore”. In the generations before the invention of the refrigerator, early February was the time when agrarian cultures had to consume their meat supplies before they began to rot. One could even think the season of Lent was a more spiritual way for people to deal with the apparent shortage of food until Spring.
The dish I want to share is a stew called Fejioada (“fey-zhoo-ah-dah”). It’s a heavy and hearty pot loaded with pork and black beans, simmering in a thin sauce of their juices and seasonings. I’ll say it’s not one for those seeking to eat light, but fejioada has an incredible flavor.
The tradition of feijoada is more or less a “special occasion” dish. Something you might make for a party or when relatives come to visit. Part of the fun of this stew is in how it’s served with a variety of sides and garnishes one could consume with the customary rice and stew. It’s definitely a fun dish for a gathering. Just hand guests a dish of rice with stew and let them garnish it themselves. Just be ready for the food comas that follow.
So let’s celebrate Carnival in our kitchens...
- 1 lb of smoked bacon, diced
- 3 small onions, chopped
- 5-6 green onions, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 12-16 oz of smoked kielbasa, sliced into discs
- 2 lbs of ham, diced
- 3 cups of black beans, rinsed and soaked
- 1/2 tsp of coriander
- 1/2 tsp of cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp of red wine vinegar
- 1 smoked pork hock
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Set up a large stock pot on medium-high heat.
- When the pan is hot, place the smoked bacon in and cook until the meat is crispy and fat is rendered liquid.
- Remove the bacon and set aside.
- Place the onions and garlic into the fat, and cook until soft and fragrant.
- Add back in the bacon with the kielbasa and ham.
- Stir and continue cooking for a few minutes.
- Mix in the beans and season the stew with the coriander, cayenne pepper, cumin, and bay leaves.
- Add enough water to the pot to submerge everything by 2 inches.
- Tuck the smoked pork hock under the water.
- Bring the pot to a boil, then lower the heat.
- Simmer the stew for two hours, stirring occasionally.
- Carefully remove the pork hock from the stew, and allow it to cool for a few minutes.
- Remove all the meat from the pork hock, cut it up into small pieces, and add it back into the stew.
- Season the stew with salt and pepper, then simmer for ten more minutes.
You likely will not need to add any oil to the initial sauté, as the rendered bacon fat will do the job. However, if your pot seems dry after cooking the bacon, add in some oil before the onions and garlic.
If you're using dried beans, be sure to fully rinse and soak the beans beforehand. Place them in a bowl and cover them with cold water, leaving them to soak for 6-8 hours.
When removing the pork hock from the stew, be careful, as it can easily fall apart.
The choices of pork are completely up to you. I've seen many recipes using pork loin, pork chops, andouille sausage, pork shoulder, Brazilian chorizo, and pork ribs. The only common factor is to use pork.
While black beans are tradition, I've seen many recipes using kidney beans, or combinations.
The tradition of feijoada isn't just about the stew, but also the various side dishes and garnishes you can serve with it. The primary staple is rice, which you can use simple white rice, or go Brazilian by adding garlic and onion to the rice as you cook it. You definitely do not want to serve feijoada without the rice.
In terms of side dishes, here's a handful of suggestions:
- Farofa: toasted casava flour used as a thickener
- Sauteed collard or kale greens
- Citrus fruits such as orange (great palette cleanser)
- Fried casava, bananas, and/or plantains
- Crispy fried pork skins, which act almost like croutons.
- Hot sauce