Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 1) - The Culinary Importance of Belém

From time to time Flavors of Brazil posts a series of related articles which we call "On The Road". Each series details the gastronomic culture - the culinary history, distinctive ingredients and dishes, and local recipes - of a Brazilian city or region. Each series is based on a visit we've taken to the locale featured, often a city we haven't visited before. In the past, these series have highlighted destinations such as São Luís, Maranhão, Rio de Janeiro and Jericoacoara, Ceará.

Flavors of Brazil has recently returned from a fisrt-time visit to the city of Belém, capital of the Brazilian state of Pará and situated near one of the many mouths of the gigantic Amazon River system, just one degree south of the Equator. It was an eye-opening experience and a crash course in the food of Brazil's north, a culinary culture that is very different from the rest of Brazil. The next few posts on Flavors of Brazil will concentrate on what we saw, heard, smelled and tasted while we were there.

Those readers of this blog who've been with the blog for a while (and who are attentive students of Brazilian gastronomy!) will remember that the tremendously varied and inventive regional cuisines that make up Brazilian food culture are the result on the mixing and meshing of three primary gastronomic influences. These three influences are the tripod from which Brazilian cuisine rises and the various regional cuisines of this country grew from the many possible ways in which these influences can blend and combine. The three major influences are European, primarily Portuguese, food culture, African food culture and Amerindian food culture. European food culture came to Brazil with the various waves of European explorers, colonizers and immigrants. African food culture crossed the Atlantic in the belly of slave ships along with the approximately 10 million Africans forced in slavery in Brazil's sugar plantations and gold mines. And the Amerindian food culture arrived on foot with the very first humans to inhabit Brazil, thousands of years before either Europeans or Africans were aware that the Americas even existed.

Touches of these three primary influences, European, African and Amerindian, are found in most Brazilian regional cuisines, but only in one cuisine is one of these influences of almost exclusive importance. The spicy, rich cuisine of the state of Bahia owes its unique qualities almost entirely to the culinary heritage of Africa. South-central Brazil, the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, is where you'll find cooking that is most strongly influenced by the cuisines of Europe. And the north, the location of the world's largest rain forest and the world's largest river, is where Amerindian food ways most stongly inform the local cuisine. The gastronomic center of Brazil's north is Belém. One can't really know Brazilian cuisine without knowing the food of Belém, just as it's impossible to claim to know Brazilian cuisine without having sampled the African-influenced dishes and delicacies of Salvador, Bahia. The food of Belém and its region is fundamental to Brazilian gastronomy, and so in the next week or so, Flavors of Brazil hopes to open a small window on this fascinating, exotic and largely-unknown cuisine. We hope that reading about the city, its markets, shops, food-stalls and restaurants will give you just a bit of the Flavor of Belém, an important part of the Flavors of Brazil.

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