Sunday, April 4, 2010

Maxixe - A Vegetable and a Dance

At the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, a Brazilian dance swept through the ballrooms and salons of the Americas and Europe - it was called the Maxixe (pronounced Ma-SHE-she or Ma-SHEESH). The dance originated in Rio de Janeiro and was created by slaves and former slaves using rhythms that originated in Africa, specifically in the area around the city of Maxixe, Mozambique. These African rhythm patterns were mixed with European dance forms like the polka or two-steps, contributions of Brazil's European immigrants. The maxixe had its 15 minutes of fame on the world stage, and then faded to a footnote in the annals of social dance.

It turns out, however, that the blacks of Brazil didn't bring only dance rhythms with them from Mozambique when they were transported to Brazil in the belly of slave ships. They also carried seeds of a small, spiny member of the cucumber family (Cucurbitaceae), which they also called maxixe. They introduced this vegetable to the cuisine of Northeastern Brazil, where the plant flourished, and where it is a very popular vegetable to this day, even as it remains almost unknown in the center and south of the country.

Unlike cucumbers themselves, maxixe must be cooked to enjoy, although it is at its best when it is not overcooked. Like cucumbers they make delicious pickles. The flavor of maxixe is like a cross between cucumber and zucchini (another member of the same family) and it is often cooked simply by sauteing with fresh tomatoes, onion and garlic in the style of ratatouille.

Maxixe is often combined with another African gift to Brazilian cuisine, okra (quiabo), and the two vegetables often show up in the same stews or vegetable casseroles. It combines successfully in stews with chicken, beef, carne do sol, and shrimps, both fresh and dried.

Maxixe also travelled with African slaves to the Caribbean where it is still cultivated and is known as "Burr Gherkin."  For avid or curious home vegetable gardeners, seeds for maxixe are available by mail order from the D. Landreth Seed Company under the name "West India Burr Gherkin" - click here for a link to the order page. An alternative source of maxixe seeds is Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, where it is listed as West India Burr Cucumber Gherkins under the cucumber category. Link is here.

In the following post, I'll provide a recipe for a simple chicken and maxixe dish that can also be successfully adapted for zucchini should you neighborhood Safeway be fresh out of maxixe.


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