Alex Atala Loves Brazilian Food

One of the world's most celebrated Chefs is on a personal mission to get you excited about Brazilian cuisine, as he tells Jenny Barchfield.

Alex Atala - Connect Brazil

It’s bad enough that so few people outside Brazil know much about the country’s cuisine, right?

Alex Atala loves Brazilian food and he’s on a mission to change your mind.

Alex Atala loves Brazilian food. “We are so proud of our soccer, our models, our music, our graffiti artists,” he said in a recent telephone interview with Jenny Barchfield. “Why is no one excited about Brazilian food?”

Atala is Brazil’s top-ranked chef and the man behind Sao Paulo-based D.O.M., one of the top-ranked restaurants in the world. “Brazilian food is so amazingly diverse, and we have to celebrate that,” he continued.

A desire to correct this poinit – over and over again – spurred him to write “D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients.”

What is it? It’s a cookbook that Atala hopes will propel Brazilian food onto the world’s culinary stage. So he flew to New York to promote it.

Brazilan Organic Gets Real

Once foreigners wake up to Brazilian food, Atala reasons, Brazilians themselves might just give their own, long-neglected culinary legacy its due.

Atala knows that many of the ingredients used in the book are not readily available to home-based, family chefs. He knows that even in most Brazilian supermarkets, let alone in the United States, Australia or Britain don’t keep stock.

But that’s beside the point, he insists.

“The main idea of the book wasn’t to make recipes to be reproduced,” he said. “It was to provoke people to taste Brazil, to get them curious about Brazilian foods and ingredients.”

Atala’s Culinary Explorations

Brazil is known mostly for its workaday rice and bean dish “feijoada,” as well as its all-you-can-eat Brazilian Steakhouses. But Atala thinks he can push readers well beyond that.

The book is full of surprising and downright bizarre ingredients. Like the Brazilian sea snail, which Atala says are tastier and less fatty than their North American cousin. How about the priprioca, a viny, aromatic root that’s described as tasting like a cross between vanilla and, uh… earth?

And don’t forget jambu, an Amazon herb that the book explains “creates a short circuit of our taste buds,” like an electric shock to the tongue.

Most of the recipes reflect intricate details: reasons why Alex Atala loves Brazilian food as a true passion for creativity.

As Natural As Brazil Itself

This can require hours of painstaking preparation. Here’s an example.

The “Langoustine with mini rice and any powder,” involves preparing a pickled white radish, a broth made from langoustine heads. Then add the actual crustaceans, plus ant powder from dried sauva ants.

Atala would tell you that the powder is typically used by the indigenous peoples of northern Brazil as a spice.

Atala, a Sao Paulo native whose trademark camouflage of tattoos testifies to his years as a teenage punk, got his start in the restaurant business during a backpacking trip to Europe.

This early opportunity brought apprentice work in the kitchens of celebrated chefs in Belgium, France, and Italy. He returned to Brazil and applied the methods he’d learned to native Brazilian foods.

But before Brazilian food can truly take its place on the world’s collective dinner plate, Atala says the Brazilian people must learn to appreciate their own cuisine.

“It’s funny that in Brazil, people know so much about different kinds of pasta and can tell you all the different properties of different sorts of flour,” he said. “But know very little about native Brazilian ingredients and techniques.”

Want to talk about technique? Atala’s on-stage slaughtering of chickens has cemented his reputation as a bad boy of haute cuisine.

Tropical Taste Buds

“I’d say the average Brazilian has never tasted at least 50 percent of the ingredients in this book.”

One reason for that is the colonial legacy of this former Portuguese colony, which traditionally valued imported European foods and looked down on native ingredients.

To this day, the most ubiquitous fish on Brazilian menus remains cod, which is caught off the icy waters of Scandinavia, salted and shipped to Brazil — a country with 4,660 miles of coastline.

Red tape in this notoriously bureaucratic nation also has been a stumbling block. For example, regulations on the interstate transport of cheese between Brazil’s 26 states have stymied the development of what Atala called a “world-class cheese” from the central Minas Gerais state.

“If Parmesan was born in Minas Gerais, it would be an unknown cheese today,” he said. No doubt about it, Alex Atala loves Brazilian food as well as he knows it.

Alex Atala Loves Brazilian Food

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