Like so many good things, Regional Contemporary Cuisine started in a mother’s kitchen.
The ninth of 13 children growing up in the coastal mini-metropolis Recife, César Santos was practically raised in his mom’s kitchen. By the age of eight he was baking cakes. By the time he turned 15, relatives and neighbors were swinging by to sample his exceptional Sunday lunches.
Mrs. Santos taught little César the basics of the hearty fare of the sun-dried Brazilian Northeast with its jerked beef specialties. Occupational training courses taught the youthful César how to make Madeira sauce. But it takes a leap of faith to get from there to the adult creations you’ll find in the Oficina de Sabor in Recife’s twin city, the colonial hilltop town Olinda.
If Recife is the capital of Pernambuco state (and Olinda the former capital), Pernambuco is the unofficial sanctuary of traditional Northeastern culture. A native of neighboring Paraíba, writer and playwright Ariano Suassuana founded the Amorial Movement, an effort to fashion an erudite culture from Northeastern ingredients, at Recife’s Pátio de São Pedro in 1970. On a culinary note, Brazil’s most famous sociologist prior to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Pernambucan Gilberto Freyre, was fretting about the state of Northeastern food as far back as 1926: “A cuisine in crisis means a whole civilization endangered: in danger of losing its character.” Seventy years later, in his book Comes e bebes do Nordeste (Food and Drink of the Northeast), folklore researcher Mário Souto Maior lamented the predominance of “fondue, ravioli, sauerkraut, chop suey (and) goulash” on restaurant menus.
The ultimate in the Northeastern fare defended by Freyre and Souto Maior must certainly be the buchada. Souto Maior describes it as a “heavy dish that demands a good dose of ‘cachaça’ to break its strength.” Buchada consists of the guts and intestines of a goat, nicely sliced and diced, with herbs and spices, all stuffed back into the animal’s stomach, sewed up tight and stewed. Believe me, I’ve tried it: break into it and the fragrance is overwhelming. No wonder “bucho” is slang for “low class whore.”
Never to fear, buchada is not on the menu at Santos’s Oficina de Sabor. When he founded the place 15 years ago on the shortside of 30, he hoped to “do what my mother did but with fruits and herbs.” The original inspiration was to mix seafood with fruit. This might seem obvious in a coastal town in a country blessed with tropical produce, but it was not part of either of the heavy seafood traditions brought over from abroad: Portugal with its “bacalhau” (codfish) dishes and western Africa with its “dendê” (palm oil) stews.
While scrambling to set up his makeshift restaurant in an Olinda house rented to him by a friend who’d skipped town, Santos came up with his first original dish: shrimp in mango crème sauce served in a carved out pumpkin. From there he ventured into passion fruit sauce.
The dishes at the Oficina de Sabor are hardly traditional in the true sense of the word. The only thing Santos has borrowed from abroad is the French concept of cooking with local ingredients. “Most of the ingredients I use can easily be found in the streets, street fairs and public markets,” he said. Indeed for those familiar with Northeastern culinary history, the food seems traditional even though – strictly – it isn’t.
One of Santos’ challenges is to maintain the flavor of the sauces he invents. It took him a whole two months to devise a savory and lasting “pitanga” (Surinam cherry) sauce. “You can’t use garlic but you can use onion,” he discovered. “The first one I tried tasted like catsup.”
Thus Regional Contemporary was born. There’s been no stopping Santos since.
I’m not sure that I remember correctly, but I think we had the Shrimp with Passion Fruit Sauce in a Pumpkin the first time I went to the Oficina with the Paraíban artist José Rufino. I liked it so much that I ordered the Gilberto Freye 100th Birthday Shrimp with Pitanga Sauce in a Pumpkin the next time. I remember the envious looks of my companions, two nice young women from Santos’ outsourced PR firm who had ordered more conservatively, when my dish was served. (Yes, I let them try mine.) For those not into seafood, Chico Junior, author of the book “Roteiros do Sabor do Brasil” (Flavor Routes of Brazil) suggests the Shredded Beef à Moda.
Take my word for it, anything “a moda” is worth the try.
More about Brazilian Regional Contemporary
Oficina do Sabor
Rua do Amparo, 335, Cidade Alta
53020-190 Olinda, PE
Telephone: (81) 3429-3331
Santos helped found a culinary festival called Recife Sabor (Recife Flavor). He is also president of a national association of cool eateries called Restaurants of Good Memories.
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