Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pirão - At the roots of Brazilian cuisine

In traditional gastronomy, in every corner of the globe, you'll find classic combinations of a protein-based main course with an obligatory carbohydrate-based side dish. In the minds (and stomachs) of those who consume these dishes, one dish without the other is unthinkable. For example, classic Lombardian osso buco is always served with risotto alla milanese. And what is the Parisian bistro standard steak without its frites? Or a proper English roast of beef without a light and airy Yorkshire pudding standing proudly at its side? Equally unimaginable for Brazilians is the idea of eating any one of the numerous regional variations of a fish or seafood stew unaccompanied by a serving of pirão. "It's just not done" as Brazilian cooks and eaters would all agree.

Pirão is uniquely Brazilian, and has been an integral part of the Brazilian way of eating for a very long time - how long no one knows. However, it is known that the indigenous population of what is now Brazil was eating pirão-like dishes long before Europeans arrived on these shores. Basically, pirão is nothing more than a gruel made by stirring manioc flour into a fish- or meat-based broth (in times of dire need, it can even be made with manioc flour and water alone). The manioc flour thickens the broth and provides the bulk and the nutrition that only carbohydrates can give.

Manioc is the staple food on which native Brazilian cuisine depended (and depends). Potatoes and corn (maize), two other New World staple crops were known to the native populations in Brazil, but didn't have the importance in native cuisine that manioc did.

Production of manioc flour (farinha de mandioca) was a long and arduous task, and in indigenous cultures was primarily women's work. After harvesting the roots of the manioc plant, the women would grate them on graters fashioned from wooden boards studded with sharp stones. The grated manioc had to be soaked first, then wrung dry in plaited nets called tipiti to rid it of its poisonous cyanide, dried over an open fire and finally ground into flour. When completely dried, manioc flour could be stored for up to one year, and thus provided stability and certainty to the nutritional requirements of the natives.

Manioc flour (like our Western wheat flour) can be used to create a great number of dishes and food products. One of the simplest is to add flour to a heated liquid, be it water or something more flavorful, then let the flour expand in the liquid to create a pap. It can be an thin as a light gruel, or as thick as a sturdy Scottish oatmeal. The thinner versions can be drunk, while the thicker varieties can be eaten with the fingers, or even with a spoon.

Today's standard-variety Brazilian pirão is neither thin enough to drink, nor thick enough to eat with the fingers - it's somewhere in the middle. It's a consistency that isn't common in European cuisines (at least not in the ones I'm familiar with). If you are familiar with Italian wet polenta and can imagine it even wetter, you have an idea of how a well-prepared pirão should appear. When poured onto a plate from a serving spoon, it should spread out, but not so much that it covers the plate. Getting the proportions of manioc flour and broth just right is something that only comes with time and practice.

In the next couple of posts here on Flavors of Brazil, I'll provide a recipe for basic, traditional pirão and another for a contemporary re-imagining of this dish that sits right at the base, the very beginnings, of Brazilian gastronomy.


  1. Thanks, Jim, for the kind words. It's nice to know that one's being read somewhere out there in the blogosphere and that readers are pleased with what they read. Obrigado.

  2. Omg. Great post! I saw the way the Indians of the amazon cut the yuca root, create it into a flour & etc... on television it was I believe on either the Discovery or History channel. It was amazing! They used all natural tools that they made from the forest. Everyone worked in a team, it looked so natural & delicious. My dream is to live in the amazon with Indians for a few months. It might sound crazy & dangerous, but I think it's beautiful & sad that the European settlers destroyed their land.

    Then again I always say food is peace. If google wasn't so broad you would be able to find all of the traditions of food. There are so many peaceful traditions & rituals involving food. It's a beautiful thing. Thanks for the post!

  3. You make some very interesting points, Amela. There is a connection between food traditions (particularly the sharing of food) and peace. Sharing food creates a bond of friendship that's hard to break.