Saturday, January 15, 2011
Manioc is the staple food on which native Brazilian cuisine depended (and depends). Potatoes and corn (maize), two other New World staple crops were known to the native populations in Brazil, but didn't have the importance in native cuisine that manioc did.
Manioc flour (like our Western wheat flour) can be used to create a great number of dishes and food products. One of the simplest is to add flour to a heated liquid, be it water or something more flavorful, then let the flour expand in the liquid to create a pap. It can be an thin as a light gruel, or as thick as a sturdy Scottish oatmeal. The thinner versions can be drunk, while the thicker varieties can be eaten with the fingers, or even with a spoon.
Today's standard-variety Brazilian pirão is neither thin enough to drink, nor thick enough to eat with the fingers - it's somewhere in the middle. It's a consistency that isn't common in European cuisines (at least not in the ones I'm familiar with). If you are familiar with Italian wet polenta and can imagine it even wetter, you have an idea of how a well-prepared pirão should appear. When poured onto a plate from a serving spoon, it should spread out, but not so much that it covers the plate. Getting the proportions of manioc flour and broth just right is something that only comes with time and practice.
In the next couple of posts here on Flavors of Brazil, I'll provide a recipe for basic, traditional pirão and another for a contemporary re-imagining of this dish that sits right at the base, the very beginnings, of Brazilian gastronomy.