Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pastel - Brazil's Favorite Snack?

If you asked almost any Brazilian what food they would associate with the drinking of caldo de cana (freshly pressed sugar cane juice) the likely response would be "pastel." A pastel is a stuffed pastry that is deep-fried, and almost always served with a glass of caldo de cana.

For millions of Brazilians, a pastel serves as a quick lunch, a mid-morning or afternoon tide-me-over, or as an anytime treat at the market, a fair or at the beach.  Pastels have been part of the food culture of Brazil for almost a century, and most food historians are of the opinion that their origins can be traced back to the early-20th Century wave of Japanese immigration to Brazil. As newly-arrived immigrants from Japan began to leave the coffee plantations and move into the cities of southern Brazil one of the ways to succeed there was to open a restaurant. Anti-Japanese sentiments were strong at that time, and Japanese cuisine was unknown, so most of these restaurateurs opened Chinese restaurants. One always-popular item in such restaurants was the deep-fried spring roll, and it's from these small rolls that the pastel developed. What the pastel has retained from its spring roll ancestor is the thin, rolled-out pastry, the use of a filling, and the technique of deep-frying. What has changed is the size and shape of the pastry and the choice and variety of fillings.

Today, a pastel is most likely to be in the shape of a rectangle of the dimensions of a normal post-card or slightly larger, although other shapes and sizes do exist. It is filled with either a sweet or savory filling and is normally served hot right from the fryer - accompanied, of course, by the ever-present caldo de cana. A pastel is stand-up food, and meant to be eaten directly from the hand - they really can't be successfully eaten with a knife and fork. They are usually served in a paper napkin or in a small paper envelope, and the caldo de cana may be presented in a plastic cup.

I often wonder if McDonald's pies, which are similarly deep-fried, were inspired by Brazil's pasteis (pasteis is the plural form of pastel in Portuguese). They really aren't a pie in the North American sense of the word, and closely resemble a Brazilian pastel with a sweet filling, although Brazilian pasteis are not often filled with apples, cherries and other North American fruits.

Like many snack foods, the Brazilian pastel can vary tremendously in quality depending on the vendor. Poorly cooked in over-used oil with minimal amounts of filling a pastel can be a very depressing experience. But properly cooked in good-quality oil, with a tasty filling and crunchy pastry, it can be a delicious, if not exactly healthy, treat.

108 comments:

  1. Yum! Every year I look forward to leading my annaul tour to South America. First stop, Rio, and a little place there that serves up piping hot pastels and cooling caldo de cana! Thanks for the reminder!

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  2. I'm pleased that this post brought forward such a nice culinary memory, if not exactly a Proust moment! Sounds like a nice gig you've got, leading an annual tour to South America.

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  3. Olá.
    Meu nome é Wesley e eu moro em São Paulo - Brasil.
    Todos deveriam ter uma oportunidade de comer um 'pastel' típico do Brasil.
    É uma delícia.
    Quem vier a São Paulo e quiser comer um bom 'pastel', procure o "mercadão municipal" e não esqueça de me convidar.....

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