A Taste of Sao Paulo

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The cosmopolitan megalopolis of São Paulo has often looked abroad for its sense of taste. But now, a new culinary movement is turning inward to find the country’s true flavour. Mara Goldwyn visits three of the city’s finest chefs to find out more.

Ana Luiza Trajano

Ana Luiza Trajano

Before Ana Luiza Trajano was an award-winning chef, she was something of a food anthropologist. In 2003, accompanied by a photographer, a cinematographer, and a ceramics artist, she undertook an ambitious journey all over Brazil to document its gastronomy and traditional culture. Part of the result was a colourful art book of poems and photographs, and a documentary. But the more flavoursome evidence of her odyssey is the now five-year-old Brasil a Gosto, her renowned restaurant. There, she serves food that is strictly Brazilian, down to the last ingredient.

Though Trajano still travels to far-flung corners of the republic twice a year to broaden her research, her culinary passion started at home. She acknowledges that until recently Brazilian food was considered something that only a mother or a grandmother would cook, while in the capitals, the higher echelons of fine dining were reserved for French or Italian cuisine. Savouring her family’s recipes growing up in the countryside, she “never understood why Brazilian food was so under-appreciated; it’s so good!

Brasil a Gosto

”Brasil a Gosto and other contemporary Brazilian restaurants around São Paulo “broke a taboo”. Trajano has shown that “Brazilian food can be served on fine tables.

” And she’s happy about how it has caught on. As the national cuisine has become ‘trendy’ in the city, national ingredients are now easier to get her hands on than ever.

In a tasteful dining room with a refined atmosphere, decorated completely with Brazilian materials, one dish she prepares is the succulent Fraldinha de Panela com Baião-de-dois. The fraldinha, a bottom sirloin cut of beef, is marinated and cooked in juice in a pan over many hours. This is a technique Trajano says is popular all over the country. Meanwhile, the baião-de-dois is a common dish from the northeast of Brazil, made up of a moist mixture of rice and beans mixed with queijo coalho, a Brazilian cheese.

Rodrigo Oliveira

“We are a true story,” says Rodrigo Oliveira, the dynamic young chef behind the restaurant and cachacaria Mocotó. “It’s not an African restaurant run by a French chef, or an Italian guy in Moscow. It’s our story. It’s the food we ate and prepared always. I think people can feel that when they’re at Mocotó.

”Over 30 years ago, Mocotó was a simple grocery and bar in the São Paulo neighbourhood of Vila Medeiros, opened by Oliveira’s father, a determined migrant worker from the northeastern state of Pernambuco. Growing up around the restaurant and working every type of job imaginable there, Oliveira eventually broke with his father’s wishes that he complete an engineering degree, and dedicated himself to gastronomy.

Oliveira revamped his father’s restaurant, expanding it along with its menu, updating regional dishes from Pernambuco to make them “healthier, with more flavour and better presentation. That was the challenge,” Oliveira says. “These were things I had always eaten. How could I do them better?” He also worked to elevate Cacha?a, a typical Brazilian liquor, to the position of respected fine spirit.


Though now celebrated in the international press and periodically visited by TV personalities and football players, Mocotó retains humility in its atmosphere, service and prices. Oliveira is proud of its diverse clientele. “It’s not a fancy place,” he says. “It’s in the food: It’s so simple, so natural. It’s just food, you know?

”Carne-de-Sol is one of Mocotó’s most popular dishes. This ‘sun beef’ is traditionally dried in the sun, and can then be grilled, roasted, or boiled. But Oliveira developed a state-of-the-art cooking method that would combine the advantages of all those methods. First he salts the meat and hangs it in a dehydrator. Adding smoke flavours, it is then vacuum-packed and cooked in a circulator overnight until soft and juicy. Finally, Oliveira sears it in a pan with manteiga de garrafa (clarified butter), and serves it with roasted garlic, pimento-de-bico – a special type of chilli – and manioc chips.

Alex Atala

Alex Atala

Alex Atala is perhaps Brazil’s most famous chef. Known in the international culinary scene for his innovative approach to traditional dishes, he has become an ambassador for contemporary Brazilian food all over the planet. In his view, the back-to-the-roots strategy is a worldwide trend: “There is a tendency among chefs nowadays of developing a haute cuisine without losing the characteristics of your region, the place you live.


”But as a leader in the movement to get national cuisine back on the table, Atala has also been an ambassador for Brazilian food in Brazil proper. When the European-trained chef established the upscale D.O.M. in São Paulo’s Jardins neighbourhood in 1999 and declared he was dedicating it to Brazilian food, it was seen as a daring feat. But by 2009, when D.O.M. was named the 24th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine, it became clear that Brazilian could be the recipe for success. That year he also opened Dalva e Dito, which focuses exclusively on Brazilian food.

Arroz Negro

A successful dish at D.O.M. that combines Brazilian ingredients with modern techniques is Arroz Negro, black rice. Originally black in colour, the rice is lightly toasted and accompanied by asparagus, snow peas, leeks, broccoli, chives, celery, and leite de castanha-do-Pará – milk of Brazil nut – which comes from the Par? state in the Amazon region.

Atala is impressed by the movement in São Paulo to “reinvigorate” Brazilian cuisine, and thinks it bodes well for the city in general. “I do hope, as time passes, that all this brings bigger benefits, not only in how the local culture and the appraisal of our recipes and ingredients are concerned, but also in the development and improvement of the hospitality and restaurant markets over here.”

It certainly tastes as if they’re on their way. Bom apetite!


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