Photo by Michael gardiner
Risoles, Coxinha and Kibe
North of the Rio Grande River, Brazilian food’s reputation is all about the beef. You can blame chains like Fogo de Chão for that. Who wouldn’t want all-you-can eat premium meats carved tableside? But all Brazilian food isn’t just churrascaria anymore than all American food is hamburgers. For a taste of what else Brazil has to offer, try Brazil by the Bay (3676 Kurtz Street) in the Midway district.
Brazilian food, like many New World cuisines, is defined by the crashing together of disparate cultures. In Brazil’s case, the clash happened among the indigenous Indian cultures, colonial Portuguese and African slaves (as well as subsequent waves of immigration). The sheer size of the country, its diverse geographies and impenetrable jungles, and the ways in which these factors served to preserve regional dishes and sub-cuisines are also hallmarks of Brazilian food. The result of all this is that there is no single Brazilian cuisine.
But if Brazil does have a “national dish” it would have to be feijoada, a stew of black beans with multiple cuts of pork and beans tracing its origins back to Portugal. It’s a classic example of a food that resulted from poverty, using beans to extend whatever bits of meat—often non-glory cuts, sausage and offal—happen to be on hand. Brazil by the Bay uses none of the later but several different sausages and fresh cuts (six of pork, two of beef) accompanied by rice, collard greens and farofa (manioc flour toasted in fat) for texture. It is a deeply soulful dish that makes time slow even if you’re eating it at a business lunch.
The best dishes at Brazil by the Bay, however, may be the appetizers. Coxinha is mock chicken legs made of shredded chicken, onions and cream cheese coated in dough and molded into a cone before deep-frying. It may only vaguely resemble a chicken leg, but it is delicious. Brazil’s vinegary molho apimentado hot sauce (malagueta peppers in vinegar) cuts the richness of the dish perfectly. Risoles (fried turnovers really) of hearts of palm are nearly as good. The kibe, North African-influenced deep fried balls of ground beef, wheat and onions, though, were dry and almost inedible.
Moqueca is Brazil’s classic version of fish stew (and a dish I was anxious to try): mild-flavored fish simmered in coconut milk, palm oil and various peppers. It sounded delicious and it looked delicious, with an almost Technicolor yellow hew. Unfortunately, it was bland. Perhaps that’s the best to be expected from Tilapia.
But, truth is, Brazil really does do beef well. Their favored cut, picanha (rump cap) is covered with a wonderful fatty layer that bastes the beef as it cooks. Brazil by the Bay’s version may not be at the level of dedicated churrascaria spots, but it certainly is good: rich, flavorful, savory and a dip in that molho apimentado brings it to another level.
Brazilian beef is good. There’s a reason we tend to think of it as synonymous with Brazilian food. But it is well worth it to visit Brazil by the Bay to try the broader flavors Brazilian cuisine has to offer.