A Brazilian institution, doctor of sociology, professor, essayist and cultural critic, he is one of the biggest specialists in cooking and gastronomy in the Portuguese language, and a great traveller.
In 2006, he won the prize for the Best Food Literature Book in Brazil, at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, for his work Estrelas no Céu da Boca. With numerous books published and articles in magazines and newspapers both at home and abroad, Dória was responsible for a special edition of Scientific American Brazil in 2007 on the science of cooking, gathering together texts by Hervé This, amongst others, on molecular gastronomy.
Intellectual, researcher and adventurer, he travels around Brazil and further afield to uncover stories, traditions and innovation relating to eating habits. A gourmet and passionate about the pleasures of the table, he appreciates a simple fishcake as much as an elaborate dish, as long as they use the best ingredients and are freshly cooked. Gastronomic snobbishness and elitism are not his cup of tea, as you can read on his blog “e-Boca Livre”. The blog is one of the most influential in Brazil and has become the place where Brazilian gastro-journalism is put under the magnifying glass and where the writer reflects on his wanderings and delicious adventures. Here he is in person.
“Anyone who is in the cooking business constructs a personal mythology on how they got started. I think back with fondness to my grandfather, an old Neapolitan migrant who wouldn’t leave the house to eat in a restaurant. ‘Tell me, where else can you eat better than at home?’ he would ask. And, in fact, at his house I tasted my first wines – Barolo and Nebiolo d’Alba – without realizing their significance. Then, of course, came the phase of reading recipes as if they were novels; and trying out dishes. Finally, reason triumphed, and the gourmand and the gourmet were born. With this came an attention to technique, and an understanding that gastronomy is ruled by the strictest empiricism. This is why it is possible – and necessary – for men like Hervé This to exist, men who aim to submit cooking to reason, like physics or chemistry.
It was only when I found myself, by chance, involved in running a successful restaurant, back in the 1980s, that I started to worry about such things. I was part owner of four restaurants and gained over 10 years of experience in the trade before I started to write about cooking and gastronomy. A sociologist by training, obviously my perspective, my interest in cooking is a little different from what you find in restaurants or at a gourmand’s table. I always need to look around. After all, gastronomy is anywhere there are people thinking about what they have eaten.
Brazilian cuisine and its Portuguese origins
Luckily for the Brazilians there is no such thing as Brazilian cuisine: we are many and therefore necessarily varied. Our diversity can be found in the ingredients, ways of cooking and appreciating food. From the outside there are many similarities between Portuguese and Brazilian dishes and we tend to think they have the same origin. For example, stews, dishes with sauces. As many indigenous peoples as Portuguese used these ways of cooking. So, looking at them today it is impossible to tell which is the dominant influence. Sauces in which you soak bread gave rise both to açordas and vatapá. But it would be wrong to assume that Portuguese influence predominates in the similarity between the two types of dish. Portugal had a major role in the trade in goods from the Far East and Africa which spread around the world in the 16th and 17th centuries. What would Brazilian cuisine be without rice? It came here from China, brought by the Portuguese on several occasions until it was widely adopted. The same happened with fruit. If we take the example of the mango, domesticated by the New Christian Garcia de Orta, in Goa, from where it made its way to Brazil. And we find accounts of colonial attempts to adapt the mangosteen to the Brazilian climate in São Paulo. Today this crop is doing well, thank you very much, in the southern Bahia state; and the world only became acquainted with the peanut and an infinity of other things from Brazilian shores because of Portugal.
Brazil, the trendy cuisine
They say that Brazil is flavour of the month in gastronomic terms. This is a slight exaggeration. I think the spread of the technical revolution in the 1990s reached a point of exhaustion and trivialization. Everyone now does foams as Ferran Adrià originally pioneered them. Now is the time to look around and rediscover the obvious, rather than “going back to your roots”. This sense of going back to the past doesn’t really exist. If you pay attention to what wasn’t there before, you only look to Paris or Madrid. Today you look at the market in Ver-o-Peso in Belém do Pará. But if you read O Tesouro Descoberto no Máximo Rio Amazonas, by 18th century Jesuit João Daniel, you will see how the Portuguese were very aware of the flora and fauna that we are now “rediscovering”. And it’s a complex relationship with tradition. Just one example; cumaru, or “tonka bean”, used for a long time in cooking, planted on the island of Réunion by the French. It has no culinary use in Amazonia, where it is abundant and indigenous. So, you can’t just look to popular food to discover its full potential. That’s why I think it is fundamental to research the ingredients themselves, rather than just traditional recipes.
But if you do want to research Brazilian habits to recreate traditional dishes, you have to go to the fairs and observe what is sold in each region. Seasonings, for example; what are the most popular in Brazil? Turmeric, paprika paste (which, in Brazil, is made from corn meal coloured with annatto), coriander, garlic and cumin, black pepper and red peppers are popular seasonings. High cuisine pays little attention to these ingredients or combinations of them.
My books are aimed at what I imagine are the questions that afflict students while training. Questioning dogma, highlighting potentials within reach, identifying solid, dependable foods from our cuisine that still have difficulties being grown and marketed – such as Canastra cheese, made in the Serra da Canastra hills from unpasteurized milk, persecuted by the hygienic mentality of the Brazilian authorities. Calling attention to all this, to the exaggerations of tradition and how they can inhibit research and creativity, is the aim of my writing. And this was what informed the book Com Unhas, Dentes & Cuca, co-written with Alex Atala; and likewise with A formação da culinária brasileira, a book written to put into perspective the belief in “Brazilian cuisine” as something absolute in the Portuguese, African and indigenous heritage. There are so many indigenous peoples in Brazil who ate so many different things, that to speak of a single influence is to smother their real influence. Some ate manioc, others corn, others still sweet potato. So, why do we only praise manioc and forget about corn, for example? If it weren’t for the Guarani and their corn, today couscous made from cornstarch would not be such a popular and widespread dish in Brazil.
The modernity of the new chefs
In big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, or Belo Horizonte, a new generation of chefs has managed to free itself from the traditional canon. They don’t exclude foie gras, but they also admit that lard has its place, along with manioc, sweet potato, various beans, fruit and vegetables that have been forgotten for centuries, when the élite looked to Paris in the 19th century. French was spoken and one ate à la francaise. Fortunately we have also had the influence of nouvelle cuisine – of chefs like Laurent Suaudeau, Claude Troisgros, Quentin Saint-Mour – in Rio and in São Paulo, showing Brazilians once more the worthiness of the chuchu, the yam, the jabuticaba, and the passion fruit. They led the way and today we have a new movement for renewal. You only have to look around and see new personalities. Some stand out like Alex Atala, at D.O.M. and Dalva e Dito; Luiza Trajano, at Brasil a Gosto; Felipe Ribenboim and Gabriel Broide at Dois – Cozinha Contemporânea; and Rodrigo Oliveira, at Mocotó. All in São Paulo. But there is also Thiago Castanho, who trained in Lisbon with Vítor Sobral, today in the vanguard at his Remanso do Peixe in Belém; or Felipe (“Sansão”), who was Alex Atala’s assistant and is now moving to Belo Horizonte. Wherever you look you find the signs of this renewal which, they say, does not offend tradition. They are ‘rediscovering’ ingredients, eliminating excess fat and sugar, imposing a new aesthetic at the table.
Modern Portuguese cuisine
I like innovative research, but I also like traditional things. From Portugal, I have a vivid memory of the duck risotto I ate at the Fialho in Évora; as fundamental to my affection for the country as the extraordinary view of the Iberian horizon seen from the hill-top town of Monsaraz. I am equally enchanted by Varina da Madragoa, and the Pavilhão Chinês, both in Lisbon. If I could I would take an extended holiday at the Palácio de Seteais in Sintra. Perhaps its neoclassical architecture is responsible for that welcoming feeling we are always looking for.
Every time I think of going to Portugal I always follow the progress of the excellent chef Vítor Sobral. Everyone has their own version of Portugal, and mine is made up of these influences and by the search, always rewarded, for uncomplicated places where the fish is served simply and honestly.”
by Luciana Bianchi