By Pedro Souza
August 8, 2017
The indigenous people of Brazil have been here long before Pedro Álvares Cabral arrived in 1500 on an expedition. Through the years they have been systematically marginalized, living now mostly in the edges of society. Yet, Brazilian culture as a whole has assimilated much from indigenous peoples. This influence is observable in many areas, from the language, which has incorporated many native words into Portuguese, to the habit of taking showers daily. Yet, in few areas is the native influence as alive as in Brazilian cuisine.
Brazilians not only eat many dishes learned from the natives, but they have also assimilated ingredients from traditional indigenous culinary and incorporated them in the culinary traditions that have arrived with immigration from other countries. Now, it is impossible to separate indigenous culinary from the Brazilian culinary tradition as a whole.
One of the ingredients traditionally used by indigenous peoples that is now widely used through the whole country is cassava, a tuberous root very rich in carbohydrates that grows in the tropics. The use of cassava based-dishes is arguably the greatest contribution to Brazilian cuisine. Natives use cassava to make flour, which they then use in many different dishes. They mix it with meat for example to make a dish called paçoca. Later, a sweet version of paçoca was developed with sugar and peanuts or cashew nuts instead of meat, which has become more popular than the original dish.
They also use cassava to make a flatbread named biju, which can be eaten with different fillings. Nowdays, biju is a pretty common dish, especially in the northern part of the country. Another cassava-based dish is the mingau, a porridge which the basis of the diet of the native people. Another cassava-based dish is pirão, a broth made of fish and cassava flour and eaten as a side dish in the northeast of the country.
Another ingredient that was an important part of their diet is corn. They not only used it to make an array of dishes, but also to produce an alcoholic beverage known as cauim. One of the native corn-based dishes that was incorporated and mixed with foreign influence is canjica. The original version consisted simply of a corn paste, but the Portuguese have added sugar and cinnamon to turn it into a delicious dessert. They are also the creators of pamonha, a corn cake wrapped in banana leaves that is often sold as street food. Also, as surprising as it sounds, natives also used to make their own version of popcorn.
These dishes and ingredients are the most noticeable contribution from the natives in Brazilian cuisine, but the indigenous influence in Brazilian culinary is noticeable all throughout the country. It can be noticed for example in the use of native fruits such as açai, guaraná, araça and cubiu, as well as in vegetables such as caruru and taiba. Mainstream cuisine is also rediscovering ingredients and recipes that have remained fairly marginalized. In the melting pot that is Brazilian cuisine, the legacy of the indigenous peoples remains one of the most important influences.