Writing about foreign cuisine should only be done based on experiences in the place itself. Whenever I write about a foreign cuisine it means that I am either there, or I’ve been there. Despite the southern states of Brazil laying claim to the “feijoada (bean stew), I’m actually in the north-east. However, I’ve tried several feijoadas around the country in order to compare them, or have the audacity to write about this icon of Brazilian cuisine. Firstly, I have to say that there isn’t possibly one “feijoada à brasileira” but several “feijoadas”. It reminds me of our “Cozido à Portuguesa” (Portuguese stew), which is not unique and knows several versions. It is well worth hearing the opinion that Paula Silva Pinto expresses in her extraordinary book "Flour, Beans and Dried Meat", which describes this important trilogy of Brazilian cuisine and explains how the elements were integrated and connected. Let’s start with a transcription of a poem by Sónia Rosa, published in a children’s edition to explain the history of “feijoada” in an instructive manner: In the days of slavery / when the table was set / deftly and suffering / the black slave woman cooked / a way of liberation / In the pan she mixed her story / with her owner’s story / Her masters were white / Black were their hands / It was they that helped / create with their African secrets/ our fragrant Brazilian food / And it was more or less like this / in this tasty mix of culture / that the “feijoada” was born / And that is why to this day / whoever tastes a “feijoada” / suddenly feels happy / Because everyone finds in it / the taste of their people ...” Now, this poem is a good start. What was the origin of what we now call "feijoada à brasileira"? The beginning of feijoada is often assigned to slaves who used the leftover pork and parts their masters did not eat. Some say that this theory is a myth. Possibly the slaves would eat beans and corn (usually fine maize flour) or “mandioca” flour to which they could add some leftover dried meat. References to the food of the slaves seem scarce, but we find references to foreign travellers who visited Brazil in the nineteenth century. On other occasions I’ve had the opportunity to express the importance of travel writers, at that time. An outsider’s view is always sharper due to the ignorance of local customs, and especially the ignorance of much produce. The “feijoada” as we know it today is naturally the product of evolution. As Ivan Alves Filho wrote "The “feijoada” is on a higher plane than beans and rice", confirming that it is not the transformation of Portuguese/European recipes. As we can see, many dishes in Portugal had no outside influences, but evolved naturally evolving and centuries later they seem almost new dishes. Gastronomy is not a static activity; it is dynamic and can evolve at different speeds.

According to Walsh, an Englishman who was in Rio de Janeiro in 1808, the main dish was "beans with bacon and dried meat." He also says “mandioca” (cassava flour) and orange were added to the dried meat. But this was not the food of slaves. Interestingly, Jean-Baptiste Debret, also in Rio de Janeiro and in the early nineteenth century, describes the food that prisoners’ families took to jail and was made up of "fresh meat, bacon, dried meat, black beans, oranges and “mandioca”." Let’s not forget that this description is motivated by the surprising fact that "legislation… means the government are not obliged to feed prisoners”. Portuguese Reports of this time mention that “generally people were fed with beans, bacon, pork, rice and corn." But it’s important that the history of Brazilian “feijoada” focuses on the history of beans. And the idea that the Brazilian “feijoada” was a version of the Portuguese bean stew with just a different type of bean is groundless. Long before the Portuguese or Spaniards landed in the Americas, beans were already produced here for over six thousand years. In Portuguese accounts from the late 16th century, it is stated "there is much rice in this land, fava beans and beans." Shortly after independence, the writer Carl Seidler stated that "beans, especially black beans, are the favourite national dish of the Brazilians." Much like in Portugal in the nineteenth century, people still made a show of eating pork to prove they were not Jews or Muslims, even after the Inquisition ceased to exist.

There has been a gap of two or three centuries between boiled beans with a little meat, served with rice, until the current Brazilian “feijoada”. And we can say that there may have been some influence of Portuguese cuisine during the evolution of “feijoada”, but this influence is not decisive regarding the dish in its current guise. I believe the African influence was stronger. And it starts with replacing beans for the local beans, particularly the black bean. Gilberto Freyre, however, states that it was the influence of Portuguese “cozinha gorda” (fat cuisine) from monasteries ... I may have my doubts. It is certain that the Brazilian “feijoada” became a national symbol, featuring the arts of poetry and song. I’m more on the side of Josimar Melo when he says:

"There is some folklore in wanting to make the “feijoada” as a legacy of the misery of slaves, which hypothetically would have created the dish with the beans, abundant and cheap, and the remnants of pork meat rejected by the lords of the manor. This would explain why we can find things like pig ear, tail, tongue and beef jerky in a “feijoada”. But who said the tradition of the landlords, the heirs of Portuguese culture, had the less noble parts of the animal thrown away? It's not what happens today in Europe, where, on the contrary, there is great appreciation for the taste of giblets and anything that is food from animals. "

I know I got myself into a great adventure when writing this chronicle. And it was all down to a “feijoada” that I recently ate that reminded me of other, much better ones that I ate in Rio de Janeiro and especially in São Paulo, a city which my best gastronomic memories belong to. And the “feijoada” deserves a more extensive text than this one. And I also want to say that the “feijoada” has become an excuse for the get-togethers so divorced from modern lives.

But how is “feijoada” made nowadays? There are many recipes. Without trying to offer the best one, I will explain how it’s made. It requires black beans, dried beef, beef, salted pork, salted pork ribs, salted pig's trotters, sausage, pork, sausage, bacon, bay leaves, onions, garlic and cabbage. Wash the meat well and leave to soak the day before. Also, clean the beans and soak in a separate container. The next day quickly cook the beans with the bay leaf and add the different (drained) meats, starting with the dried meat and trotters, which take longer to cook, and then add the other meats. Sometimes, the sausage can be pre-fried and then added to the stew.

As the meat is cooking, break it into pieces and return to the pan to cook. If you choose to fry the sausage, uncured bacon or bacon, or other charcuterie, keep the fat from the frying to sweat the chopped onions and crushed garlic. Add some already cooked beans to them and mash them. Then add to the saucepan where the stew is. Do not forget to taste the “feijoada” so it is not salty. In terms of presentation, you should put the meat on a different plate to the beans with sausages, served with white rice, cabbage, which is finely chopped and fried in hot fat, spicy sauce and sliced oranges or orange segments.

There is a wealth of recipes and ingredients depending on the different regions. Here are the ingredients and side dishes of a recipe I found: black beans, dried beef, salted or smoked pork rib, salted leg of pork, salted pig tails, smoked pork, sausage, Portuguese sausage, smoked pork tongue, bacon, onion, garlic, bay leaves, orange juice and vodka or rum. Served with: white rice, rice cakes with ginger, cabbage à “mineira”(from Minas Gerais) , fried cassava, boiled cassava, breaded banana, fried pepperoni sausage, bacon crisp toast, bacon, grilled pork chops, suckling “pururuca”, toasted manioc flour, spicy bean sauce, flour, chilli sauce, steamed pumpkin, stewed dried beef, dried meat meal, yam buns, sliced onion, golden mashed squash cooked in coconut milk and oranges cut into wedges! Apart from the excess involved, maybe a lack of nationalism, as well.

Finally, do not forget that a good wine is the perfect match for “feijoada”.

© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes

Jan 2011