On top of a hill in the central Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Lapa stands a cafe like many others that dot the landscape of the cidade maravilhosa. Cafe de Alto stands among a number of buildings left in various states of ruin, in a district that was once the epicenter of bohemian culture in Rio, but now exists simply as a memory of a forgotten time. The cafe’s windows face the street and are adorned with lines of hanging dolls, both male and female. The latter hang by the bows in their hair, while the former hang by their necks.
Our gaggle of Americans, 15 heads give or take, are heading to see the famed Escaderia Selarón, but before then we must eat. Sleep deprived, hungover, and two weeks into a trip that has removed each of us from our routine realities, we could all use a breather. Each of us lumbers through the cafe’s extensive menu, but I know what I’m ordering, I’ve had years to prepare for this moment. I’m ready.
My head throbs to the humming beat emerging from the cluttered and hectic kitchen. I order another liter of beer for the table, half of which ends up going into my gullet as we wait. Patiently at first, but almost an hour after ordering, we’re all starting to struggle. And then, it emerges. And then, I’m saved. A medium-sized pot, far too large for the only supposed two portions included inside, is placed in front of me, along with the classic accoutrements of farofa, couve, and orange slices. I open the lid and as the steam clears I breathe in my first beautiful whiff of Brazil’s national dish, feijoada. It might not seem like much, a simple black bean stew loaded with various cuts of meats, completely customizable to what’s available at the time, but to understand feijoada’s importance, it’s best to consider how feijoada came to be.
If you know any Brazilians, or if you’re lucky enough to have traveled there yourself, than you know of the power of this simple, incredibly delicious staple of Saturday afternoon lunches throughout the country. Although the legend of feijoada has grown over the years, the common belief is that the humble black bean stew started off as a slave dish in the sugar and coffee plantations found throughout Brazil in the 1800s. Feijõas (black beans) were a staple of the Brazilian natives’ diets and became the main source of food for slaves, along with any meat scraps passed over by their owners. Then, after slavery was outlawed, the dish continued to spread throughout the country, eventually finding its way to high-end restaurants in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Although this is a great story, the truth is most likely a lot simpler and less interesting. Starting with the ancient Romans, most cuisines in Western Europe have included some variation of a bean and meat stew, such as cassoulet in France or cozido in Portugal. As the Portuguese influence spread throughout Brazil, Portuguese dishes were adapted to the ingredients available in the new world, including most prominently the addition of black beans (instead of the customary white or kidney beans), a food simply not eaten in Western Europe at that time. By the turn of the 20th century, feijoada in its modern form was appearing on menus throughout Brazil’s high-end restaurants, and it has continued to grow in popularity ever since.
I first learned of feijoada in 2007 when a younger, snarkier, and drunker Anthony Bourdain experienced the magic of feijoada firsthand on his first televised trip to Brazil. He drank and danced and was completely at the mercy of the beautiful, friendly Brazilians who took him in as family. Immediately, I knew that I needed to recreate that moment, I needed to eat feijoada, and it needed to be in Brazil.
Every bite I took at Cafe de Alto felt like a new moment of discovery. There were meats with textures that I’d never experienced and the couve (Brazilian-style collard greens or kale) were cooked in a way completely foreign to me. I had so many questions and, as my hangover gave way to the sensation overload occurring in my mouth and brain, I knew I needed answers. Of course, the best way to understand a dish is to make it yourself, and so as I returned to the U.S., I knew I had a mission.
Between the information I was able to pry from our Brazilian hosts and the vast number of recipes I found online, I was able to tie together a rough framework of what was needed and which ingredients would be hardest to come by. When you break down feijoada to its components, the process is relatively simple: cook beans (or heat canned beans as I did), add water, add meats, and be patient. Like so many other hearty stews, feijoada is best prepared the day before you plan on serving it so it can go through the mysterious melding of flavors that science has yet to fully explain, a black hole of the culinary world. I of course didn’t make it easy on myself and prepared the dish the day that I decided to serve it to seven unsuspecting friends, but the actual process started several days earlier.
One of the key—and most interesting—ingredients in almost any feijoada recipe is carne seca, the rehydrated dried beef that is truly unlike anything I’d experienced up until that fateful day in Lapa. Unsurprisingly, when I went shopping for ingredients I wasn’t able to find this rather uniquely prepared meat. Unlike Mexican carne seca, the Brazilian variety is closer to thick cuts of beef jerky, which is what it’s sometimes referred to in Americanized recipes. Since I wasn’t able to find carne seca, I decided to attempt to make it myself by salt-curing and drying three pounds of chuck roast. Although the real process takes upwards of a week, I opted for a 48-hour quick cure, which provided me with just the right amount of concentrated flavor, along with quite a bit of salt, most of which I was able to wash away.
In addition to the pseudo seca, I included rib strips instead of the traditional baby back ribs (the strips were on sale) and a pound of longaniza, a dry-cured Spanish sausage similar to chorizo. By opting to not cook the beans myself, the recipe was as simple as adding all of the ingredients into the pot (meat, beans, and water) and cooking it low and slow for two hours. Then adding a mix of sautéed onion, garlic, and a few ladles of pureed beans and cooking for another hour. That’s it.
As my friends arrived that Sunday night, I prepared some bolinhos de bacalhau to hold them over as I finished up the greens and toasted the farofa. And then, we feasted. Feijoada was ladled out over rice, orange slices were passed around, and caipirinhas were sipped as I gave some of my closest friends their first taste of a dish treasured by millions only a few thousand miles to the south of the U.S.
Was my recipe completely authentic? No, but only I knew the difference. As each of us reached our points of peak fullness, I looked around and smiled knowing that I’d been able to show my friends a glimpse of why I’d fallen so hard for not just the feijoada, but for Brazilian culture and the people responsible for its creation as well. And as we all laid our forks down for the final time, as I took my last bite of couve, I squinted through the low lights of the dining room. If I looked hard enough, I could see those same doll-adorned windows of the Cafe de Alto and could hear the busy hum from the kitchen responsible for taking me to a state of gluttonous nirvana just a few weeks before. And just like I did sitting on the beach in Rio, I suddenly felt like I was home.
Max Bonem is an eater and home cook who is more than likely hungry at this very moment. He enjoys writing about food and talking to other people about what they’re finding most appetizing at the moment. Holler at him on Twitter: @bonematlarge.