I love making feijoada, the Brazilian national dish. It looks like a decadent feast of many components, but it’s easy to achieve and you get to watch the magic of black beans slowly becoming silky and thickened. It’s also fairly healthy for such a heavy dish – the central beans, meat and rice are joined with sliced orange, toasted manioc meal, and kale for a colourful and fully rounded meal. It was the perfect relaxed meal to share with our friend K, who had been working very hard and arrived in the middle of an apocalyptic storm. We passed around the pão de queijo and pretended we were in Rio…
The origins of feijoada are somewhat murky. Mr Lemur, who was born in Brazil, always told me that it was a government invention, designed with the optimal nutrition of a poor population in mind. I haven’t been able to find any sources for this story, so I suspect it’s an oddly socialist urban myth. Many people believe it to have originated in the slave quarters of early colonial Brazil, but this one is a bit of a myth too. These days, it is accepted that the dish has a largely European origin, with the Portuguese bean and pork stews similar to French cassoulet adapted for the black beans of Brazil. There are some native elements, such as the use of black beans rather than white, and the farofa sprinked on top of the beans. And it’s certainly true that African bean and leafy green stews, and indigenous bean and manioc dishes are crucial to Brazilian cuisine in general. But while Brazilians would prefer to view their national dish as emerging from native and African roots, this particular ‘national dish’ seems more likely to have developed in the grand homes of the colonists. No matter who invented it, though, feijoada today does represent elements of each of Brazil’s major historical influences: African, indigenous, and European. Even if, like most traditions, this one turns out to be a nineteenth-century invention, it’s a pretty good one.
Cooking feijoada outside Brazil presents a few problems. Manioc meal (aka cassava flour or mandioca) and dendê or palm oil are usually locatable in ethnic stores – look for places that cater to African as well as Latin American communities. The traditional smoked meats, beef jerky, and pig’s ears are not always available. (Or, your guests might not want ears floating in their dinner, which I totally respect, even though it’s obviously misguided.) As it happens, I have a wonderful local butcher who has in the past offered to procure me ears and other obscure animal parts and he even has a Brazilian assistant who got quite excited when I mentioned making feijoada. But even without these resources, you can make a perfectly lovely feijoada. It’s not a precious dish and as long as you have meat that will stand to cook for hours and access to bones, you’ll be fine.
- beef: I’ve used short ribs very successfully, but British butchery doesn’t cut the cow up that way. Here, I used chunks of flank and added beef bones for flavour
- pork: pork ribs are good and/or ham hock
- sausage: chorizo or Portuguese linguiça
- smoked beef or pork if available
- 2-3 cups dried black beans
- 2 dried chipotles – this is not traditional but in the absence of smoked meat and Brazilian beef jerky, I find a couple of chipotles adds a nice bit of smoky flavour
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- a small handful of cilantro
- 1 large bunch kale, chopped
- 1/2 cup farofa
- 2 tbsp dendê oil
- 2 oranges, slices
- hot sauce
Your first order of business is to soak the black beans for at least 8 hours. It really helps them stay intact during the cooking process and not stick to the bottom of the pot. (Honest, it does help. I’ve been tempted to use them unsoaked more than once and while it’s perfectly fine, you definitely get a better result with soaked beans. Alton Brown once explained why this is and I don’t remember but it seemed very convincing at the time.)
Once you’re ready to cook, wash the beans and put them in a big pot with water covering them by a good couple of inches. Add chipotles, and, if you have them, ham hocks and smoked meats. Also bones. Bring to the boil and simmer for two hours, stirring every half hour or so to make sure there’s enough water and they’re not sticking.
While you’re waiting, make the farofa. Heat the dendê oil in a small frying pan and add in the farofa when hot. Stir for a few minutes, until the farofa has soaked up the oil and toasted. Set aside for serving. You can also cook it in butter and/or bacon fat if you don’t have dendê.
After two hours, add the beef and pork. (Remove bones.) Continue cooking, stirring a little more frequently now. In another half hour, add sausages and cilantro.
Next prepare the flavourings. In a little oil in a small frying pan, sauté the onions until soft and then add the garlic and bay leaf. When fragrant, add in a ladleful of bean liquid and cook for another couple of minutes. Add this mixture into the pot.
Now it’s just a case of checking in on the beans. They usually take somewhere between 3 and 4 hours to cook. The absolute worst thing is undercooked beans – I still have nightmares about the crunchy black beans I ate at a dinner party once. At a certain point once the beans are ready the liquid will very quickly go from watery to thick and silky.
To finish, take the meats out and put them on a plate. Sauté the kale quickly and slice the oranges. Serve meat, beans and sides along with rice. Serves 5-6.