Tuesday, July 3, 2012

One Dish, Two Names - Drayman's or Maria-Isabel's Rice

Gauchos with drayman's cart
From the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, bordering Uruguay and Argentina, all the way to Brazil's semi-arid northeast is a distance of around 2000 miles (3200 km) as the crow flies and significantly farther by road. So it's not entirely unreasonable that there are large differences between the two regions - economic, racial, meteorological and cultural differences among others.

But there are also similarities shared by these regions at opposite ends of the country. They are united by language, by religion, by politics and by the media. Although they are miles apart, Rio Grande do Sul and the northeast are in many ways more similar than Rio Grande do Sul and either of its next-door neighbors, Uruguay or Argentina.

The proof of this is in the pudding. Or at least, if not in the pudding itself, somewhere in the kitchen. Many dishes, foodstuffs and techniques can be found both in Brazil's south and in its north, yet are absent just across the border in neighboring countries. Sometimes this is evident - a dish is known and loved across Brazil but totally unknown in neighbouring countries - but sometimes it's not. Although Brazilians in different regions might be sitting down to identical dishes at the family dinner table, they might not be aware of that, as they each call the dish something different.
arroz carreteiro

An prime example of this is a very traditional Brazilian dish of rice cooked with salted-dried meat. In southern Brazil it's known as Drayman's Rice (arroz de carreteiro) but in the northeast it's called Maria-Isabel's Rice (arroz Maria-Isabel). Same dish, different names. In fact, even the regional name for the salted-dried meat that is essential to this dish varies - in the south it's called charque (a Portuguese word related to English jerky) and in the north carne de sol (meat of the sun).

History makes it easy to see how southern Brazilians came to call the dish Drayman's Rice or Carter's Rice. This region was originally settled by ranchers who raised vast herds of cattle on the open plains of the region. The cowherds who tended the cattle often spent months out on the plains, far from the nearest ranch. A network of draymen, using ox-driven carts, serviced these remote locations, carrying anything that the cowherds needed that wasn't available locally. These draymen spent months on the trail following the herds, and they needed to be self-sufficient in everything, including food. Charque doesn't require refrigeration, nor does rice. All that's needed to prepare these ingredients is water and heat. Combining the two ingredients into one dish made sense, and once the practice of cooking rice and charque together became established, the dish was baptized Drayman's Rice.

In colonial times, the dry interior or northeast Brazil was also an area of cattle ranching, with the same settlement patterns as in the south. Here, presumably, draymen also travelled the trails of the backland bringing goods to the cowboys and ranchers, and presumably they ate the same dish of rice and dried meat. But for some unkown reason, in this region they chose to honor a certain, unknown Maria-Isabel when it came to naming the dish, ignoring drayman entirely. Who Maria-Isabel was, or what her association with the dish was, is lost to history and likely will never be known. But her name lingers on in the kitchens of northeastern Brazil.

Call it Drayman's Rice or Maria-Isabel's, Brazilians love the dish and it's a standard of traditional Brazilian gastronomy. Not fancy, but filling, nutritionally balanced, and comforting, it's an essential dish in the Brazilian culinary pantheon.

Next post, we'll provide a recipe for the dish.


  1. Hi James! This blog is such an amazing resource! I work at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia running the Papagaio (papagaiobrasilia.wordpress.com) and would love to have you as a contributor. Would you consider writing for us - or letting us republish some of your posts? We'd include a byline and full credit of course! You can contact me at papagaio@state.gov. Thanks!

  2. Hi James!
    I represent a Brazilian Restaurant concept that has entered in the US market they are known as Giraffas.
    We would like to get in touch with you regarding the possibilities about you writing for us.
    Can you please contact Carlos Venegas : carlos.vanegas@giraffas.com

    Thanks so much