Arabian Delights of Brazil

Article excerpt

In the world of culinary art, Brazil is to Portugal as Mexico is to Spain. These two colonies in the New World were the crown jewels of their respective motherlands. However, in their cuisines, both carrying deep Arab influences, there is a difference.

Even though many of the original colonists in both countries were Moors newly converted to Christianity, in Brazil, a huge number of African slaves were imported to work on the plantations. A good number of the latter were Muslims, and their food was saturated with North African influences. In addition, the twentieth-century Arab immigrants to the country added another dimension to Brazilian food. Hence, the Moorish heritage of the Portuguese kitchen was further reenforced by the dishes of West Africa and the Middle East.

This ethnic mixture and the diversified climate of Brazil have been responsible for the creation of one of the most varied kitchens in South America. Peppering this cuisine were many other influences. Aboriginal Indians, German, Italian, and Japanese, among others, have also contributed to the Brazilian menu. For centuries Brazilian cooks have been borrowing from the foods of other people, then combining them with their own to produce a fascinating and wide-ranging culinary world.

Above all, it was the Portuguese influence, itself greatly influenced by the Arabs, which had the main hand in the creation of Brazilian cooking. When the Arabs conquered Portugal, they brought along with them numerous new dishes. For the needed ingredients to create these foods, they introduced a considerable number of vegetables and fruits, unheard of in the Iberian Peninsula at that time--many today still carrying in Portuguese their Arabic names. From among these: apricot, in Portuguese abrico, comes from the Arabic al-barq_q; carob (alfarroba; al-khar_bah); orange (laranja; n_ranj); pomegranate (roma; rumm_n); rice (arroz; alruzz); and sugar (acucar; sukkar).

The Arab-introduced plants made possible a series of new culinary delights, expanding greatly the kitchen of the Iberian Peninsula. In Portuguese, Arabic-derived names for foods are an undeniable testimony to the influence the Moors had on the cuisine in this part of Europe. Acepipe (hors d'oeuvre, from the Arabic al-zabib); aletria (vermicelli; ir_yah); almondega (meatball; al-bunduqah); escabeche (pickles; al-skab_j); azeite (olive oil; al-zayt); sorvete (sherbet; sharbat); and xarope (syrup; shar_b) are a number of these foods.

All these culinary contributions the Arabs gave Portugal were later to be brought by the Portuguese to Brazil. This historical base of the Brazilian cuisine with its Arab connection was further buttressed in the last hundred years by the large immigration from the area of Greater Syria to all parts of the land of the Amazon. Today, in every large Brazilian town the eastern Arab delights of hummus (chick-pea appetizer), esfiha (open meat pies), tabouli (parsley salad) and, above all, kubbah (bulgar and meat patties, known in Brazil as kibbe), are offered in many homes and public eating places.

The first time I entered a restaurant in Recife, Brazil's major northeastern resort, I was astonished to see kibbe featured on the menu. In the ensuing days I not only discovered that this Middle Eastern staple had become a Brazilian food, but that, served in a great number of eating places throughout the country, it also was prepared in a much tastier fashion than in its land of origin.

It matters not if these foods are Moorish/Portuguese, twentieth-century Arab contributions, or dishes brought by the slaves to Brazil, they are much spicier than in their Arab homelands. However, they are still undeniably recognizable as Arab-influenced or almost pure Arab foods.

In the Arab lands along the eastern Mediterranean, one usually starts the day by breakfasting on hummus bi-tahini. This delightful dish, fast-spreading in Brazil, can also be served as an appetizer or a tasty snack. …