By Rodrigo Brandão
Born in Campo Grande, Brazil, near the Bolivian and Paraguayan borders, Marcos Antonio Gouvêa learned to cook from his parents, gourmands of Portuguese/Mediterranean descent, as well as from other members of his extended family, all of whom introduced him to specialty dishes from all over Brazil.
Now living in New York City, Marcos prides himself on his dedication to the art of cooking and has launched Brazil on the Table, a company that provides individuals, couples, and families who love Latin American cuisine the opportunity to have traditional meals prepared for them at home, also offering brunches, dinners, and parties for special occasions, as well as specialty items in bulk.
In this exclusive interview with BrazilNYC, Marcos talks about the secrets of Brazilian cuisine and shares a recipe with our readers at the end of the article.
RB – What’s the best way to describe Brazilian cuisine — and how is it different from other cuisines in Latin America?
MG – Brazilian cuisine is very rich, thanks to the country’s fertile earth and other natural resources; it’s also a reflection of Brazil’s diversity and, dare I say, joy of life. I don’t think it can be compared to any other international cuisine although it certainly has been influenced by culinary traditions from all over the world, such as Portuguese, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian cooking and it shares some common ground with cooking elsewhere in Latin America such as Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina.
The richness of Brazilian cuisine is obvious in the wide array of flavors, colors, and especially aromas in dishes from around the country, and because of its unique ingredients including yucca, dende oil, corn, tapioca, and bulgur wheat, that when combined with staples such as beef, chicken, seafood, pork, rice, and beans, produce culinary magic. And I haven’t even mentioned fruits like mango, passion fruit, papaya, pineapple, and even more exotic ones from the Amazon, all common in our cuisine.
Our “Brazil on the Table” is eclectic, engaging the palate but also the other senses; its uniqueness also comes from the country’s complex history—beginning with its indigenous foundations, continuing with the arrival of the Portuguese and other Europeans, as well as black slaves (whose contribution to Bahian cooking, for example, is enormous), and later immigration from not only Europe but Asia, especially Japan. Brazil’s diverse climate and geography have also played a role in shaping its cuisine, from the arid northeast to the tropical heart of the country to the breadbasket of Brazil, Minas Gerais.
All of these factors have helped produce dishes such as Feijoada, the national dish that was invented by slaves; the succulent Bobo de Camarao; our hearty Feijao Tropeiro, and the ubiquitous Brazilian barbeque, as well as amazing desserts including passion-fruit mousse, chocolate Brigadeiro balls, and pave, a concoction of lady-fingers, fruit, and cream. By the way, these are all dishes available to customers through Brazil on the Table.
MG – Honestly, I haven’t found any difficulties in cooking and serving clients in the U.S., at least in relation to my menu at Brazil on the Table. We have in Newark, NJ, and in Astoria, NY, very good supermarkets that provide quality ingredients imported directly from Brazil — authentic Brazilian products such as passion-fruit juice, dende oil, and the best coconut milk in the world! But, even so, some Brazilian Items are difficult to find, for example, certain cheeses and cachaca from Minas Gerais and Brazilian beef; luckily, I have my special places to find these authentic products.
I’ve also had to import certain cookware such as clay and soapstone pots in order to make dishes such as Bobo de Camarao (mentioned above), a succulent shrimp stew cooked with yucca, coconut milk and multi-colored peppers—a truly mouth-watering dish and one of my favorite items on my menu. So, in the end, while there are challenges to producing authentic Brazilian cuisine far away from the homeland, there are ways to find essential ingredients and to make use of local products and to improvise as necessary to ensure quality dishes.
RB – Some typical dishes from Bahia like Vatapá, and the South states, like Barreado, are already famous in New York. But New Yorkers rarely have access to a more rarefied Brazilian menu. What are some of your favorite Brazilian dishes that still haven’t become popular in the US?
MG – Actually, even for me, as a Brazilian, the dishes you mention–Vatapa and Barreado–are two of the most exotic ones I know. They’re certainly delicious but I think that New Yorkers should also definitely get to know others, many that come from Bahia, such as our Bobo de Camarao, as well as Camarao de Moranga, another amazing shrimp dish that’s cooked in a gourd; as well as Xin-xin de Galinha, a rich chicken dish simmered with shrimp and dende oil; Caldo do Sururu, mussel broth, and Acaraje, a delicious fried bean fritter often sold at food-stands on the beach in Salvador—a real treat.
There’s also Baião do Dois, rice, beans, and cured beef, from Ceará, in the north; and dishes from the heartland of Minas Gerais like Vaca Atolada, rib-stew with yucca; Feijao Tropeiro, mentioned above—a tasty concoction of brown beans sautéed with yucca flour and served with pork chops and collard greens; and Frango com Quiabo, chicken stew with okra and polenta. Even dishes that are supposedly well known, such as Feijoada, the national dish, made with various cuts of pork, beans and sausage; or Moqueca de Tamboril, monkfish stew, are, from my experience, relatively unknown to the U.S. palate.
The same with our desserts—outside of the well-known pudim, a kind of Brazilian flan. Let me say here that I’m often surprised by the expressions of delight when customers taste my passion-fruit mousse, or even my Romeo and Juliet—Braziilan cheese and guava paste—for the first time. And their delight delights me too: my greatest reward is knowing that I’m pleasing my customers and introducing them to new dishes, a brand new cuisine. Again, all these items, along with more common Brazilian fare such as barbeque (the famous picanha or tri-tip beef) are offered by Brazil on the Table.
RB – What are some of the best options, as far as Brazilian cuisine goes, for vegetarians?
MG – Because of the excellent meat substitutes now available—not just tofu and seitan, but products like PVT—dried soy sold in granules, strips and chunks—it’s possible to reproduce many dishes that traditionally use beef, chicken or pork, even fish. Some of the dishes my vegetarian clients like me to make over and over include some I’ve mentioned above and others—Moqueca de Frango (mock chicken stew), Frango com Quiabo (mock chicken with okra), Xin-xin de Galinha, and even Feijoada, if you can believe it. Another favorite with clients is our Pao de Queijo, Brazilian cheese bread, which is totally vegetarian and even gluten-free. The secret to making delicious vegetarian Brazilian dishes is using good products such as those noted above that mimic meat, poultry or fish, as well as plenty of fresh vegetables and other ingredients, and a wide variety of spices, not to mention creating a pleasing visual presentation—that’s essential in successfully cooking any dish, vegetarian or not.
RB – Can you share one of your recipes with some BrazilNYC readers?
With pleasure! Here’s an easy and quick Brazilian dish that I’m sure your readers at BrazilNYC will love:
Tilapia Brazil (serves two to three)
Ingredients: 1 pound of Tilapia filet; salt; juice of 1 lime or lemon to taste; 1 medium onion, sliced; black pepper; ½ can or jar of tomato sauce (your favorite variety); 10 black calamata olives (pitted); ½ cup coconut milk. Your favorite lettuce and tomatoes.
Marinate the fish 5 minutes with a mixture of salt, pepper, and lime- or lemon-juice. In a frying pan, put half of the sliced onion, and half of the tomato sauce, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the fish filet on top; cover with 6-8 ounces of tomato sauce and the other half of the sliced onion. Heat to medium and let the fish and other ingredients cook for 8 minutes, covered. Add the coconut milk and calamata olives and cook 5 minutes more, with the pot still covered. Taste and add additional salt, if necessary. Serve with white rice and a lettuce-and-tomato salad. Bon apetit!
Contact Marcos Gouvea, Personal Chef, Brazil on the Table, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (212) 828-5708. Feel free to visit his website at www.brazilonthetable.com. Brazil on the Table is also now on Facebook.