Saturday, August 21, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Mandioquinha; Brazil's Oldest Food?

Many of the foods consumed every day in 21st century Brazil have a very long history - they have been eaten locally for untold thousands of years, certainly for much longer than the short 510 years since the arrival of Europeans on Brazil's South Atlantic shores. The native American inhabitants of what is now Brazil have endowed Brazilian cuisine with some of the most basic and important foodstuffs in its larder - things like manioc, urucum, vinagreira, and the pinhão. Foods that are native to the Americas are one of the three cultural cornerstones of all of Brazilian alimentary history along with foods from Africa and foods brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and other European settlers.

Current scientific research into native American food plants seems to indicate that the oldest food - that is, the food with the longest history of cultivation - currently to be found on Brazilian plates is a root vegetable variously called mandioquinha, batata-boroa, or batata-aipo. There really isn't a name in English for this root, so the Spanish term arracacha is often used in English-language texts. The mandioquinha plant was first cultivated in the highlands of the Andes Mountains and was introduced into the lower elevations of Brazil through native American trade routes. It is currently cultivated in a number of regions in Brazil.

The mandioquinha has a taste that many people describe as being intermediary between carrot and celery, though one discerning gourmet said it's taste was "a delicate blend of celery, cabbage and roast chestnuts". One of the names of this plant, batata-aipo, literally means celery-potato. Like the potato itself, mandioquinha cannot be eaten raw, and the most common way to cook the root is to boil it. Just like the potato, once boiled, mandioquinha can be served plain, mashed, included in stews and soups, even turned into gnocchi. One culinary advantage that the mandioquinha has over it's potato cousin is that it comes in a variety of intense colors - creams, yellows and purples.

Mandioquinha is an important ingredient in the traditional, homely cooking of many Brazilian regions. The use of the root is also undergoing a culinary reappraisal in the kitchens and laboratories of some of Brazil's most innovative chefs and culinary authors. Entranced by it's complex mix of flavors and it's visual appeal, the newest generation of Brazilian chefs has raised the profile of this humble Andean root, making it one not only one of Brazil's oldest forms of nutrition, but also one of it's characteristic elements.

In the next post on Flavors of Brazil, I'll provide an award-winning recipe for a contemporary fusion-cuisine uptake on the mandioquinha.

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