Thursday, April 8, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Clarified Butter (Manteiga de Garrafa)

All aspects of a traditional cuisine are informed by the cultural landscape in which it develops. Ingredients, techniques, equipment used, food preservation, all depend on topography, climate, availability of water and many other cultural factors, even such unlikely ones such as language. This is precisely why no two traditional cuisines are exactly the same, as they do not have the same "genetic background."

Nonetheless, certain elements of many different traditional cuisines seem to pop up independently in cultures that are geographically worlds away, and with little communication or connection between them. For example, the custom of eating crispy-fried insects can be found in traditional cultures from Australia, to Thailand, to Brazil's Amazon rain forest. Such similarities are nothing surprising, as cultures might share available ingredients, or similar climates, without even knowing of each others existence. The need to turn available foods into something palatable is universal.

Brazil's semi-arid northeast (called the Nordeste in Brazil) is a hot, unforgiving landscape with scant vegetation and less water. It resembles parts of the plains of India in all of these aspects. Both areas are  centers of cattle ranching and inhabitants rely on dairy products as an essential part of their diet. Until recent times refrigeration was uncommon in either area, and so preservation of dairy products was a matter of importance. In addition to cheeses, interestingly, both areas developed similar techniques for preserving butter without refrigeration, by clarifying it to remove the milky solids, leaving behind only the dairy fat. The Indians know the resulting product as ghee, and in Brazil's Nordeste is it called either "manteiga de garrafa" (literally, butter in a bottle) ou "manteiga da terra (butter of the earth).

Today, many urban Brazilians in the Nordeste  but manteiga de garrafa not because they must, but because it's part of their traditional palette of flavors. It is an essential ingredient in many of the iconic dishes of this region, and its characteristic taste and smell instantly identify any dish in which is it used as coming from the Nordeste. It seems that the product is virtually unknown outside this region of Brazil, and its availability of limited in other parts of the country.

Today, manteiga de garrafa is available in all local food shops and supermarkets in the urban centers of the Nordeste, but many people still prefer to buy it from roadside stands in the countryside, claiming that the taste is more authentic. Manteiga de garrafa is strongly flavored, and for some it's definitely an acquired taste - it has a strong barnyard aroma, with buttery and even cheesy dairy flavors predominating.

Like butter or cheese almost anywhere in the world, manteiga de garrafa is not something that many people make at home, although recipes for homemade manteiga de garrafa do exist. But most kitchens in Brazil's Nordeset have a bottle of it in the pantry or on a shelf. It lasts forever at room temperature, and when needed, it gives that "down-home" flavor that people everywhere crave.

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