Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chibé - An Indigenous Staple Goes Upmarket

Many anthropologists believe that civilization (and history itself) began when mankind first manipulated his food before consuming it. If the food was the trophy of hunters, that probably meant roasting the flesh over an open fire or over embers. If the food was harvested from cultivated fields, it meant grinding seeds or grains and then combining them with water and creating some sort of pottage - a soupy paste something like oatmeal or cream of wheat. Somtimes the grain and water mixture was cooked, but often it wasn't- the grain was merely soaked in the water to soften it to make it easier to digest.

Even today, in the most remote reaches of the Amazonian rain forest there are native tribes whose diet primarily consist of grilled or roasted meats and fish and a liquid mush or soup they call chibé. This mush is made by soaking a manioc flour called farinha in water and seasoning the resulting soupy liquid with a pinch of salt and some hot peppers. Chibé is not cooked, it's just soaked in water, usually river water, until it reaches the proper consistency. It's a very nutritious food, full of carbohydrates, and very filling. Variations can be found everywhere throughout the millions of square kilometres of the Amazon basin, and for those raised on the banks of the thousands of rivers in Amazonia, chibé is the ultimate comfort food. For those who don't have the childhood memory associations to go along with it, it's usually considered inoffensive but very bland.

Part of the culinary adventure of forward-looking chefs and restaurant owners in 21st century Brazil is discovering the foods, the traditions and the techniques that have been part of Brazil for millennia and learning how to modernize them, bring them up to date - with luck, without losing the integrity of the dish or ingredient itself. Chefs from the big cities in the south of Brazil are discovering that there's a world of food culture outside their own region and are beginning to travel around the country in a sort of culinary gold rush - zipping out west first, next to the north-east, the cradle of Brazilian cuisine, then traveling the rivers of the Amazon - all in search of traditions and foods worth of preserving and interpreting. One of these foods is chibé . It's now moved out of the jungle, hopped a southbound plane, and is now showing up in the menus and on the plates of the best, most innovative restaurants in Brazil's various metropolises.

One chef who discovered chibé during culinary expeditions to the Amazon is Alex Atala, chef/owner of D.O.M. in São Paulo. He has adopted it and used it to inspire some of his most up-to-the-minute creations. We'll post one of his recipes for a chibé-inspired dish next time on Flavors of Brazil.

1 comment: