Friday, October 22, 2010

Ragamuffin's Foot - Pé-de-moleque

One of the most interesting words in common usage in Brazilian Portuguese, to my mind, is moleque. It's pronounced mo-LEH-key, and the word originally came from the African language Kimbundu where it meant simply "boy." In colonial Brazil it took on the meaning of "black boy" or "slave boy", and was used to designate child-slaves who worked in the kitchens and laundries of the owner's mansions on sugar cane plantations. In time, it lost its connotations of race and slave status, and today it generally means a young boy, often a street kid, who is playful, impish, knavish and often dirty - a ragamuffin.

Interesting etymological discussion, you might say, but what does it have to do with Brazilian food culture? Well, one of the most traditional and common sweets in Brazil is called "pé-de-moleque" which when translated into English becomes Ragamuffin's Foot, or Street-urchin's Foot. Legend has it that the name was first applied to the treat in the northeastern State of Pernambuco in the 18th Century. As the story goes, a woman who often made a treat out of rapadura (raw brown sugar) and peanuts was in the habit of leaving it on her kitchen windowsill to harden and cool. There was a street kid who lived in her neighborhood who loved sweets, and who sometimes would run up to the windowsill, grab a piece, and run away. One fine day, the woman happened to see the thief in action, and as he ran barefoot down the street, she leaned out the window and shouted: "Pede, moleque!", which means "Ask for it, kid!". The name stuck, and over time "pede" (ask for) become corrupted and confused with "Pé de" which means "foot of." Thus, "Ask for it, kid!" became "Ragamuffin's foot." Or so the story goes. True or not, it's a charming story and has given a memorable name to this delectable treat.

pé-de-moleque southern-stye
Actually, I should say that it has given it's name to these delectable treats, because today the name pé-de-moleque refers to one of two entirely different sweets, depending on in which region of Brazil one is speaking. In most of Brazil, the south, southeast and center, pé-de-moleque is a mixture of melted rapadura or brown sugar with peanuts - kind of like peanut brittle. Hard, chewy, sticky and very sweet. In the northeastern region of Brazil, however, pé-de-moleque is a dense cake made with rapadura, manioc flour and nuts, similar to a molasses cake. What both versions have in common is the dark, rich raw sugar and the presence of nuts. They differ in whether flour is added to make a cake or not.

pé-de-moleque northeastern-stye
Shortly, I'll post recipes for both styles of pé-de-moleque, as well as a chef's contemporary take on a deconstructed one. Get out your sweet-tooth, as pé-de-moleque is always achingly sweet - just as sweet as that 18th Century street kid who gained immortality by stealing candy from the old lady up the road.


  1. Meu doce preferido depois do doce de leite. yamnmmmmmmmmmyyyyyyyyyyyyy

  2. More pé-de-moleques.