Tuesday, June 19, 2012

UTENSILS OF BRAZIL - Clay Pot (Panela de Barro)

When proto-Brazilians first learned that many foodstuffs were improved, or even simply made edible, by the application of heat, they basically used two ways to apply that heat. In the rain forests of the Amazon basin and the coastal mountains, on the savannahs of western and central Brazil and on the beaches of the the country's immense coastline, Amerindians cooked their food either by direct exposure to fire (grilling, basically) or by indirect exposure. Indirect exposure involved placing the food in some sort of fired clay container and heating the food in liquid inside the pot or pan. Even the most primitive tribes of Amerindians seem to have known the technique of firing clay to make ceramic products and to have learned that once fired, ceramics can be exposed to high levels of heat without damage. Metals were unknown to these tribes, and wood was unsuitable in the presence of fire, so without clay pots they would only have been able to grill food.

Grilling is a technique that is well suited to most meats and seafood, plus some types of vegetables. However, it is less well suited to cooking roots and tubers and other types of vegetables that constitute the basic staple foods of most cultures. In pre-Colombian South America these staples included manioc, potatoes and corn. The most common way for Amerindians to cook them was in clay pots. African slaves also brought with them their own traditions of cooking in clay when they came to Brazil.

Today there is a resurgence in the use of clay cooking pots in Brazilian cooking, even though in rural areas of the country it had never really gone out of style. In the cities of Brazil, in the kitchens of fine restaurants and in the homes of dedicated amateur cooks, there has been a rediscovery of clay cooking utensils. There is something about the way that clay transmits and retains heat that really cannot be duplicated in metal or glass - particularly in relation to heat retention. For dishes that require long cooking at low temperatures, there is nothing better than clay. This rediscovery of clay cooking utensils really is just one more case of "everything old is new again." Today in Brazil, there is nothing more ancient or more avant-garde than cooking in clay.

To buy clay pots and pans in most Brazilian cities, all one needs to do is visit the nearest market in which artisanally produced material can be purchased. There you can find pots of all sizes from miniature to mammoth and in a myriad of shapes and forms. Some are beautifully decorated with incized designs and decorative handles, others are purely utilitarian. But they all work equally well. It's also possible to buy clay pots online in Brazil for those who don't live near a market that sells them.

Clay pots need to be seasoned prior to first use, but once seasoned, they can last a lifetime if properly handled. In the next post here on Flavors of Brazil we'll teach you how to season an unglazed clay pot Brazilian-style, and then we'll highlight some Brazilian recipes which are best cooked in clay.


  1. One day I'll have a kitchen big enough to buy and store clay pots in (with space for a clothes dryer to boot!).

    Fun entry, thanks!

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