Cornmeal soup, and asking more questions.
Adapted from: bambá de couve, from Minas Gerais, Brazil.
It occurred to me, more recently than I’d like to admit, that everything comes from somewhere. It’s not that I thought food materialized out of thin air; it’s that I hadn’t yet developed the interrogation muscle. The globalization of our food systems have made it impossibly convenient for some of us to “taste the world”—lemons from South Africa and shrimp from Vietnamese mangroves have found their way to my kitchen this year through no effort of my own—and equally easy to forget that ingredients have a provenance beyond the fluorescent shells of our grocery stores.
This is just as true for recipes as it is for produce, but the line of questioning still does not come naturally to me. Growing up in my parents’ kitchen, every dish fell into two categories: Chinese, or not Chinese. It’s a mental model reinforced by life as a minority in overtly racist places, where our Chineseness and their not-Chineseness was always something we were reminded of. In turn, what wasn’t our food was their food, and in my parents’ view, less interesting. Gross generalizations run both ways.
In early adulthood I tried to course correct by trying as many cuisines as I could, in an effort to discover the cultures that I had mentally grouped together as other. I wanted to be, to my present-day embarrassment and for lack of a better word, worldly; an unprejudiced eater. But I fell into the trap (aided by the hubris of youth) of assuming that a culture’s cuisine could be encapsulated by the offerings of a handful of “authentic” restaurants. I equated surface-level knowledge of a culture with an understanding of it. This revealed itself to be another problematic form of bias.
Lately I’ve been trying to embrace the idea that I don’t know anything about anything. More often than not, this instinct is proven right: simple facts about food and its place in the world continue to blindside me, and everything is something I’ve never thought about before. But I’d rather this open naiveté than the complacency of knowledge; I’d rather ask more questions than assume I have the answers, or that the answers I have are enough.
All of this to say, today’s dish is from a culture I know very little about. As is the case with most of the things I cook, I found the recipe while searching for what to do with a novel ingredient—this time, andouille sausage. The recipe itself provided no context (unlike NYT Cooking, Bon Appetit has yet to revise their archives to give recipes their due credit), but a tip from someone in the comments sent me down a path of discovery. The soup, on its own merit, is delicious, but learning more about its origins has been its own source of satisfaction.
This recipe is an adaptation of a bambá de couve, a comforting soup that hails from Brazil, specifically the southeastern state of Minas Gerais—a region widely considered to be the country’s culinary heartland. Comida mineira, or the cuisine of Minas Gerais, is revered throughout Brazil; in 2016, it was declared a cultural patrimony worthy of protection.
In broad strokes, comida mineira is characterized by rich, rustic dishes featuring farmhouse ingredients, chief among them pork, chicken, corn, beans, and soft cheeses. Traditional cooking happened on a wood stove, using cast iron pans; both of which impart unparalleled flavor. Looking at images of Mineira kitchens, my mind fills with the sounds of the room: the soul-soothing chatter of families gathered in the kitchen, wood crackling in the fire, pots gurgling as they simmer away.
Bambá de couve consists of smoked pork and collard greens simmered in a meat broth and thickened with fubá (Brazilian cornmeal flour). It’s a soup that feels like a meal, and is warming in more ways than one. Before I learned of its Brazilian origins, the ingredients reminded me of food from the American South—which turns out to be no coincidence, as both culinary traditions are deeply steeped in African influence.
According to Travel and Leisure, recapping a Parts Unknown episode on the region: “Minas Gerais was founded as a gold rush town in the 16th century when Portuguese settlers brought African slaves from overseas to search for gold. By the 19th century, resources were completely depleted and Brazil had the largest African diaspora population in the world.” It comes as no surprise, then, that another iconic dish of the region is frango com quiabo (chicken with okra), variations of which are seen throughout the Southern United States.
My friend M., who grew up in Minas Gerais, tells me that bambá de couve was created by the enslaved Africans working in the mines, using cornmeal (a common ingredient) and whatever meat scraps they could get their hands on. In that way, it’s another example of austerity cooking defining the culinary traditions of a region, necessity reborn as comfort. We owe so much to those who made do with nothing.
The Brazilian version of this soup, M. tells me, does not have eggs, but I welcomed its presence here. (I love a soup that forgets it’s a soup.) If you do not have andouille sausage, any smoked pork product will work just fine, I think—other recipes have mentioned kielbasa and bacon.
Speaking of those, here are a few to compare:
From Flavors of Brazil, which uses kale and cubed bacon…
From Saveur, via Brazilian food blogger Neide Rigo, kielbasa and an “egg drop soup” technique…
And a simple version, from Best Brazilian Recipes.
Have you been surprised by food lately? Tell me of your learnings.
Until next time,