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Taste of Travel: Brazil

Rio, Rice and Beans : Elaborate feijoada buffets in luxury hotels and restaurants tempt tourists, and locals, to dine on Brazilian history

January 09, 1994|HEIDI HAUGHY CUSICK | Cusick is a free-lance food writer who lives in Mendocino

RIO DE JANEIRO — Feijoada , the multi-dish meal that's become chic here, reflects the ironies of this geographically beautiful city, where beggars hover near million-dollar, beach-front structures. Originally created as a rice-and-bean pot to feed West African slaves working on Brazil's sugar plantations during the 18th and 19th centuries, feijoada has evolved into a multi-course event of hedonistic proportions at Rio's lavish hotels and restaurants.

Merging the ingredients and cooking methods of three continents, the feijoada meal is based on beans and rice, both found in West Africa, usually flavored with pork introduced to Brazil by the Portuguese and thickened with ground cassava indigenous to South America.

While researching a book on African influences on cooking in the Americas last year, I was curious to see how far this meal with the musical-sounding name (pronounced fej-WAH-dah) had been taken. From its origins as a means for stretching leftover pork odds and ends by adding them to belly-filling beans, feijoada has been expanded for hotel and restaurant buffets where black beans are served with a wide variety of meats and other foods.

Where else can you taste pig ears, feet and tails next to pork loin, beef steak and sausages, amid an abundant offering of mangoes, papayas, pineapples, watermelon and exotic tropical fruits?

One-dish and modified versions are offered on various days throughout Rio, as well as at Sunday lunches in private homes, but on Saturday afternoons, well-to-do Brazilians line up with tourists for feijoada buffet extravaganzas served in the world-class hotels along Rio's famous beaches. The buffets imitate and elaborate on the meals traditionally served at home on Sundays.

At home, families gather around dining tables set with steaming bowls of black beans flavored with pork, garlic and onion, and seasoned with chilies, ground pepper, bay leaves, parsley, oregano and sometimes cumin and dried basil. Also on the table might be bowls of white rice and of sauteed greens ( couve ) and, maybe, platters of grilled pork chops or sliced pork loin. Diners dish up the hearty beans, rice, greens and pork and spike it to taste with a spoonful of hot chili salsa (molho de pimenta). They probably also sprinkle on the toasted cassava meal (farofa) to thicken the beans.

In hotels and restaurants, feijoada --the name comes from feijao, the Portuguese word for beans--is often served with batidas, drinks made of fresh mango, passion fruit, coconut, papaya or lime juice doused with cachaca, a sugar cane liquor something like rum. I found the drink called caipirinha-- limes crushed with sugar and cachaca-- to be crisp, tart and a perfect accompaniment to the feijoada.

Feijoada completa (the full buffet, as served in hotels) typically begins with a sort of non-alcoholic aperitif: a tiny sampling of black bean soup made from beans simmered for hours with salted and smoked meats. Then you go to the buffet, which includes another pot of black beans, plus grilled pork chops, sauteed beef liver, stewed pig's feet, smoked sausages, sauteed plantains, sauteed greens, pots of farofa, sliced pork loin, hot sauce and platters of tropical fruit.

The meal stretches out on buffet tables in cast-iron caldrons and terra-cotta casseroles--holdovers from the dish's origin when it was cooked outside over open fires. Assorted cured and fresh meats from the tail to the snout, the hock to the loin are cooked with onions, garlic and herbs and stewed in their own broth.

In fancier presentations, loins and steaks are roasted or grilled. They all accompany the pots of plain white rice and the richly flavored beans. In most restaurants, each of the pots is labeled in Portuguese, and in some places English, so the orelha (ears) can be differentiated from the costeletas (chops) and the carne seca (dried meat) from the pe (pork foot).

Couve, a pot of bright green shredded kale, adds color to the buffet filled with dark brown meat. A bowl of chili salsa fires heat into the robust dishes. Orange slices are a palate-cleansing refreshment. Farofa meal sits in bowls on the table, and diners stir it into the bean and meat sauces on their plates.

The rest of the buffet includes an extravagant variety of salads, cold cuts, vegetables, fruits and pastries. The feijoada is followed by desserts made of fresh coconut, cooked yams and Brazilian chocolate. At the end, an espresso-size cup of excellent, sugar-sweetened cafezinho (coffee) is the perfect chaser to the afternoon of feasting.

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