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What do you hunger for?

Eating habits help understand the dynamics of relations in colonial Brazil

Still life with bananas and guavas, Albert Eckhout. Oil on canvas, 103 x 89 cm, c. 1640. Reproduced from the book Albert Eckhout / Visões do paraíso selvagem – obra completa, Ed. Capivara, 2010

The exuberance of fruit was portrayed by Albert Eckhout in the 17th centuryStill life with bananas and guavas, Albert Eckhout. Oil on canvas, 103 x 89 cm, c. 1640. Reproduced from the book Albert Eckhout / Visões do paraíso selvagem – obra completa, Ed. Capivara, 2010

Grab history “by the stomach” – this is the strategy of historian Leila Algranti, a professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), to have one more clue to understand the Portuguese Empire. “I am interested in colonial history. Food was one more way that I found to understand the dynamics of this Empire,” she explains. “To understand the colonization of America one must capture the forms of communication between the conquerors and the conquered, the integration and modification between the Old and the New World. Eating habits allow the historian to understand not only the results of this cultural exchange but also to understand its process,” she states.

This interest led her to work on the research study “Spices in the kitchen and in the pharmacy – A study of the history of eating in Portuguese America,” which analyzes eating habits in the Portuguese world in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the study, she reflects on cultural exchanges, and on the appropriation of elements and new meanings among the inhabitants of different regions of the Empire – a fantastic cultural exchange.

“Food is not a superfluous topic: hunger is still at the core of government policies. Food is not eaten only to sustain; it is a structuring element within the social organization of any human group; it deals with all aspects of social life, spirituality, power, sexuality and gender differences. In the research study, Leila refers to prominent intellectuals such as Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Gilberto Freyre, Caio Prado Jr. and Câmara Cascudo, all of whom – in different ways – resorted to food to explain how the nation was formed through a combination of “three racial groups.” “This new historiography argues that the thesis stating that the combination of elements is different from the birth of something new is outdated; more specifically, it is outdated to state that Brazilian cuisine is a combination of indigenous food, with a pinch of African culture, and many elements of Portuguese cuisine,” she says.

Traditional concepts, such as the importance of indigenous and African foods in the daily diet; the adaptation of the Portuguese colonizers to the new eating habits, comprising local products; or images of hunger caused by monoculture need to be carefully revised. These concepts had been voiced at a time when Brazilian intellectuals looked backwards at the colonial past in order to ponder on the future of Brazil. Caio Prado Jr.’s approach to colonization was focused on monoculture for the overseas market, which kept everyone busy and nobody paid any attention to food culture.

“Thus, the notion of a mixed, hybrid, combined cuisine is no longer acceptable, because it only shows the end result, without revealing the cultural mediation process, which entails the overlapping of different foods. Foods were substituted, and there was resistance to identities,” Leila argues, in contradiction for example to the eating flexibility of the Portuguese, as stated by Freyre. “Eating habits have to be thought of within their imperial dimension, because the colonizing of America is only a part of a broader venture, namely, Portugal’s maritime expansion,” says the researcher.


The meals of both master and slave had low nutritional valueA BRAZILIAN DINNER. DEBRET, WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 15.9 X 21.9 CM, 1827. REPRODUCTION FROM THE BOOK DEBRET E O BRASIL – OBRA COMPLETA, ED. CAPIVARA, 2009

After dominating the spice trade, thus ensuring the flavor of European cooking, the Portuguese witnessed the Dutch and the British destroying their monopoly in the 17th century. This crisis led to an exchange of products and flavors among the colonies. Portugal brought condiment seeds from the East to Brazil and took Brazilian plants to other parts of the world, to the extent that this affected the origin of native plants. “The coconut tree, for example, came to Brazil around 1553, on board the ships arriving from Cape Verde. Nowadays, the coconut tree is one of the symbols of Brazil. The same thing happened with mangoes, the jaca breadfruit (artocarpus heterophyllus), cinnamon, sugar, cotton. This exchange was intensified to diversify crops and save the balance of trade,” points out historian Márcia Moisés Ribeiro, a researcher of the Institute of Brazilian Studies of the University of São Paulo (IEB/USP) and coordinator of the project “Journey overseas: the circulation of scientific knowledge in the Portuguese colonial empire,” funded by FAPESP under the Young Researcher program.

“The Motherland tried to offset the loss of the spice business from the East. However, thanks to this situation, the cultivation of spices from India helped promote the circulation of a scientific culture – referred to as the ‘adventure of plants’ – among the Portuguese-owned colonies.” However, this was a contradictory movement: people were avid for novelties and diversity, but this was dominated by the tradition of fitting the unknown into familiar patterns, as will be seen further ahead.

The famous spices originated from the Latin word “drogas,” (i.e., drugs). In spite of the common belief, they were desirable not only as a way of preserving foods or masking the taste of rotten meat. “The spices represented the association between cuisine and cure based on the galena pharmacology of ‘moods,’ whose swings were related to the food being eaten. To balance mood swings, people would eat food whose qualities were the opposite of an unbalanced ‘mood.’ Cooking and medicinal recipes were the same and food was not only a flavor issue but also a health issue,” Leila points out. This fact transpires in the first Portuguese cookbook, Arte de cozinha [Art of Cooking] (1680), by Domingos Rodrigues. The cookbook has recipes of food seasoned in accordance with the taste of those times and which was supposedly good for health. The exuberance of the New World, where the indigenous people had access to a plentiful land filled with game, fish, roots and tubers such as cassava – which the natives had learned how to handle – and corn, should have driven the Portuguese to abandon their traditional food and embrace the native food, as had been preached by the older generation of historiography.

“The colonizer, however, remained true to his original diet, comprised of wheat, wine and olive oil as long as possible. The incorporation of eating habits in America was faster than the inverse process, as the Europeans resisted American products by levying import tariffs, instead of adopting the traditional native diet: beans, cassava meal, and beef jerky,” Leila points out. “Supplying the colonizers with food from their native countries led to Old World eating habits being reproduced in the New World: everything that could be transported in terms of food was introduced to America.”


The sugar cane monoculture brought wealth to the capital of the kingdom and were the origin of confectionary, the Colonies' cultural heritageSUGARCANE, DEBRET. WATERCOLOR, 7.8 X 23 CM, C. 1818. REPRODUCTION FROM THE BOOK DEBRET E O BRASIL – OBRA COMPLETA, ED. CAPIVARA, 2009

When the Europeans arrived here, the native population’s basic food was comprised of corn and cassava.  Later on, these two foods would also become the basic food of Portuguese America. However, each party sought to maintain its own way of life: the natives used foreign cooking techniques on ingredients they were familiar with. “The Europeans only accepted the food that came from the kingdom. They only switched to native food when they were no longer able to maintain this menu, as exemplified by substituting wheat with cassava ,” explains historian Rubens Panegassi, of the Federal University of Viçosa. In his book Olinda restaurada [Restored Olinda] (Topbooks, 1998), Evaldo Cabral de Mello explains that the acceptance of native foods by the sugar plantation elite of the Colonies only occurred due to the unstable supply of imported products during the war against Holland. The sugar elite gave in when it realized that their only option to stave off hunger was to eat cassava meal.

The “eternal blame” of monoculture is another issue that has to be addressed. “The colonial era in Brazil was highlighted by crops planted to meet Europe’s needs, to the detriment of domestic needs. However, food was focused on and looked after constantly on a daily basis,” Rubens says. The image of a monoculture colony does not fully portray Portuguese America. “Regions to the north and to the south of the main sugar cane producing centers were not strongly focused on foreign trade and thus were focused on farming. In the State of Maranhão, local production allowed the local population to eat fresh products,” says historian Paula Pinto e Silva, author of Farinha, feijão e carne-seca: um tripé culinário no Brasil colonial [Flour, beans and beef jerky: the culinary tripod of colonial Brazil] (Senac, 2005).

“The distance between São Paulo and the central regions also encouraged self-sufficiency: São Paulo did not depend on imported products; this fact, together with the contact with the natives and the option for corn as the staple food was the specific food repertoire of the region,” Rubens points out. The efforts made by São Paulo inhabitants to provide food for the inhabitants of the State of Minas Gerais – who were obsessed with mining – led to a lack of interest in farming by the latter, which resulted in hunger crises. “Nowadays we know that green belts and food production facilities surrounded the mining sites. Even the Northeast Region farmed staple foods, although that region suffered from a chronic lack of food,” Leila points out. Research studies that tend to generalize often forget the vegetable gardens that surrounded the sugar cane plantations. The vegetable gardens were prepared to raise European and native species.

“The acclimatized species would grow, but soon native vegetables invaded the ‘European-style vegetable gardens. So the cooks in the kitchens of the main houses began to substitute the original ingredients with equivalent local ingredients,” says Paula.

The slaves also cultivated their secret vegetable gardens. “The African contribution came in various forms, but we need a more detailed biography of the dishes believed to be of African origin. The African influence is more related to taste and to the way in which food was prepared rather than to the native African food,” Leila says

“They did not bring in elements from their eating habits; traders introduced these elements to Brazil and influenced our food. That is, this influence was part of the Atlantic Ocean trade between Portugal-Africa-Brazil, which included slave traffic, says anthropologist Maria Eunice Maciel, of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and author of the paper “Brazilian-style cookery.” “The permanence of African recipes is not restricted to the persistence of eating habits. In addition, the changes made to these recipes did not result only from the lack of ingredients. Both are part of a cultural dynamic related to the instant re-creation of the way of life.”

Even the origin of feijoada bean and meat stew reveals a symbolic battle. “If the fact that feijoada was created in the slave quarters is a myth, then it is important to keep in mind that myths talk. Thus, this narrative reveals the class and race relationships in Brazil. The same holds true for versions that deny this origin.” Cachaça sugarcane alcohol, originally scum formed from the impurities that rose to the surface of the copper pans in which sugar cane juice was boiled, is also part of this narrative. Cachaça was fed to the animals, and given to the slaves and to the natives, who would ferment it. Distilled sugar cane juice was something new to the Europeans, who were used to wine. Cachaça was repressed because it did not pay taxes and affected the Kingdom’s beverage market. The consumption of cachaça was persecuted by the Jesuits. The liquor was used to conquer the hearts and minds of the indigenous people, and used as barter in exchange for the information that the natives had about the land. Negroes were “calmed down” with the drink.. “However, one cannot ignore the calories contained in the liquor and the importance it had on the skimpy, unsatisfactory diet of the slaves,” Leila points out.


Sale of food products: drawing by Debret portrays the low diversity of cuisine at that timeBEEF JERKY SHOP, JEAN-BAPTISTE DEBRET. WATERCOLOR ON PAPER, 15.2 X 20.4 CM, 1825. REPRODUCTION FROM THE BOOK DEBRET E O BRASIL – OBRA COMPLETA, ED. CAPIVARA, 2009

Fruits – avoided by the Europeans, who feared their effects – and destined for the slaves, were a different story. “The masters only ate fruit boiled with sugar, in the form of compotes, jams, cakes and sugared fruits. Confectionary reveals how tropical fruits were adapted to daily European life, a noteworthy example of the cultural adjustment of the kitchens in the plantation homes,” says Paula.

Sweets also attest to health-related concerns. “Records of that time show that sweets were found on the tables of the farm workers and next to the headboards of the sick,” says Leila. “Confectionary is the most original tradition of Portuguese cuisine, a paradigm of cultural mediation. It is not a secondary segment of eating habits in Portuguese America. It is the most important colonial production, which changed eating and nutrition habits in the modern age,” she adds. The main courses served to masters and slaves were similar in terms of their simplicity. Sweets were a whole different world. In the beginning, sugar, rare and precious, was first found only at pharmacies. It was not until the 15th century that sugar was used in sweets. “In the past, sugar could only be found in pharmacies and was prescribed for the sick. Nowadays, sugar is devoured as a delicacy. What used to be medicine is now gluttony,” wrote Ortelius, the geographer, in 1572.

The abundance of tropical fruit, coupled with the fruit brought by the colonizers, allowed cooks to prepare sweets that resembled those made in the capital city of the kingdom. “The combination of new products and traditional Portuguese cooking techniques gave rise to different kinds of cakes that maintained their original name, such as sponge cake, although they were different from European ones. It is symptomatic that the continuity of the name highlighted a major difference in terms of the content. In other words, an old word was used to name something new,” Leila points out.

“Between the 16th and 19th centuries, cooking in Portuguese America was being developed and transformed, as cooking is an art that entails combinations and inter-relations, with processes based on variations rather than creation. This is the reason for the existence not only of colonial confectionary or dishes, hybrids or combinations, indicating the end of a trend, but also of cuisines ‘in plural form’ and of eating habits, followed in the Big City as well, and altered and re-read in America,” says Leila. This was a huge change from the report by the priest Cardim, written in the 16th century, which describes how wine and medieval dishes were served to a Portuguese bishop in the backlands of the State of Bahia. Even so, it was not “Brazilian cuisine,” but rather a juxtaposition of “cuisines.”

“Our intercultural characteristics materialized in networks of perceptible relations, in the spaces of meals, in the use of artifacts, in the food processing techniques, in recipes, in the kitchens of Portuguese America,” adds the historian. Moreover, the shaping of the nation included the transformation of eating habits.

Evidence of this is the publication of the book Cozinheiro imperial [Imperial cooking] in the 19th century. None of the recipes for sweets in this book contain native fruits. “Brazilian society saw itself as being highly advanced because it read guides on how to have good table manners. This shows how food was elected as one of the main characteristics for the distinction between civilized and ‘non-civilized’ people,” Leila states. Everything that brought animalism to mind would be penalized, and meals, in addition to satisfying hunger pangs, would expose the new sociability.

In the Republic, the publication of Cozinheiro nacional [National cooking] reinforces this principle by including recipes that combined Brazilian and European elements. Prior to that, in 1780, another cookbook had already revealed the political relations of food in the new colonial dynamic: O cozinheiro moderno ou a nova arte de cozinhar [The modern cook or the new art of cookery] (1780), by Lucas Rigaud. “The cookbook has simple foods, with seasonings and light herbs to bring out the flavor, rather than mask it with the strong flavor of spices. These are significant signs of the trade of specific products, as well as of the broader cultural exchanges that took place in the South Atlantic region. Food is pure politics,” says Leila.

This is not only specific to Brazil. The cookbook A ciência na cozinha e a arte de comer bem [Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well] (1891), by Italy’s Pellegrino Artusi, compiled recipes from all  regions in Italy, a unification of the stomach which occurred a mere twenty years after the political unification of Italy.

“Currently, there is a desire to retrieve the cuisine of the past. People feel nostalgia for better food, of the kind described in old-fashioned recipes. I can eat fast food or a buffet-style meal, but the desire is for ‘home-cooked’ meals, a search for an identity that is found in our cuisine,” Leila says. This food is ready to get us by the stomach.