Thursday, October 13, 2011

Cooks to the Rescue! Saving Traditional Paulista Cuisine

cuzcuz paulista
The megalopolis (plus or minus 19 million inhabitants) that is the city of São Paulo is a modern,  avant-garde city of tomorrow, both for good or for bad. Although the city has a long history, its look is ever forward, rarely backward - art, music, architecture all march relentlessly into the future, and referential art, which looks backward to earlier times, is not valued.

What is true for fine arts in São Paulo is also true for the art of cooking. Because of the long history of the city, and of the countryside in the state of São Paulo that nourishes it, there is a wealth of culinary tradition that stretches back almost 500 years. Yet in São Paulo it's the chef who is the most outré, the most daring and inventive who wins prizes and accolades. Molecular gastronomy and creative and unheard-of fusions rule with critics and diners alike. Traditional paulista (from São Paulo) cuisine is an endangered species in its home territory.

Jefferson Rueda
A few youngs chefs from São Paulo, however, are working feverishly to rescue traditional paulista cooking from obscurity before it disappears entirely. They are riding to the rescue of the imperiled maiden that is paulista cuisine and hope to raise its profile and protect its treasures by taste education, by publication and by presentation.

A recent article in the São Paulo newspaper Folha de S. Paulo details the work of these mostly younger chefs. Here is Flavors of Brazil's translation of the article:

The traditional cuisine of São Paulo is in decline. This beautifully simple, rustic cuisine, marked by the importance of corn, pork, and chicken.

And so have arisen a few daring young chefs - who make the humble origins of this paulista cuisine, which has been a source of shame, a source of pride - stubbornly searching for the roots of this cuisine, and resolved to make some noise in the city. Cooks like Jefferson Rueda and Ivan Achcar Eudes Assisi, who work to rescue the aromas that wafted through their childhood homes, in recipes that feature ingredients from the earth, the countryside, in a well-rounded new cuisine, using only traditional techniques.

In parallel with the cooks, on September 21st São Paulo City Councilman Juscelino Gadelha applied to have a traditional dish called virado paulista enshrined as part of the intangible patrimony of the city of São Paulo in the city's heritage list. The recipe is one of the iconic dishes of the style of cooking that first began to take shape (and still is formed) by the hands of Portuguese colonists and native Indians. Of the pioneers and cowboys. Of those who left what is now the city of São Paulo barefoot, armed with guns, and hammocks for sleeping, a few bringing along silver spoons, old books to entertain themselves, such as those described by pioneer Alcântara Machado. Of those on backcountry expeditions in the last quarter of the 17th century, searching the land for gold and Indians.

For food, these pioneers took little with them when they left the city. They made good use of the fish that swam the rivers, the berries and all the animals that they found in the brush. They were required by decree, according to food historian Caloca Fernandes, to "sow corn, beans and squash, easy to grow plants that will ensure a supply for new pioneers."

"In time this diet, rustic in character, became a permanent remembrance of the pioneer experience," says historian Antonio Candido. "And today there are elements of that adventurous spirit, which appear in the work of (chef) Eudes Assisi, for example."

Born and raised on the São Paulo coast, youngest of 14 children, chef Eudes, who once traveled the world cooking on cruise ships, now champions local ingredients such as the pupunha palm,  the wild lime and the taro-like taioba. 

"My coastal culture was being lost, no one was drying home-caught fish on a line, as my mother once did" says chef Eudes. But in the restaurant that Eudes will open in 2012, his plan is to showcase that genuine coastal cuisine of his childhood, a mixture of fish and bananas, sweet and salty. 

Similarly Jefferson Rueda, who now works in a prestigious European restaurant, will return to São Paulo in December and plans to open his own restaurant there in January. It will highlight the rustic gastronomy of the state's interior, which was first settled by Italian immigrants who came to work on coffee plantations. "Paulista cuisine has influences from other Brazilian states and other countries too," says Rueda. Chef Eudes in his Casa da Fazenda (Farmhouse) restaurant will simple pork loin, chicken with okra, virado paulista, thus sharing this idea of a "collective memory" cuisine.

"Do you know where I find comfort in São Paulo?", asks chef Eudes. "In classic paulista restaurants like Sujinhoin neighborhood botecos, in that little bar on the corner."

Jefferson Rueda agrees: "The rustic cuisine of the interior of  São Paulo is something beautiful. Everything resolves around the table."

Ivan Achcar Eudes Assisi
The work of these chefs is not something unique to them or to  São Paulo. Similar chefs are working around the world to ensure that culinary traditions that date back hundreds or thousands of years are not lost irretrievably. We should all give them a nice round of applause, and all the support they need.

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