Tuesday, August 3, 2010

BEEF CUTS - Cupim

As I've previously discussed, trying to untangle the linguistic and culinary nightmare of the taxonomy of beef cuts in Brazil and in North America is no simple matter. To start with, butchers here in Brazil and those in the Northern Hemisphere don't cut beef the same way, so a cut hat's popular in one region, like picanha in Brazil or Porterhouse in North America, might not exist in the other. Further, there are regional and local naming variations on both sides of the Equator. However, Flavors of Brazil doesn't intend to let this complexity deter it in its attempt to untangle and clarify this gastronomic bagunça ("messy situation" in Portuguese). In due course, we hope to work our way through the entire animal from head to tail to compile a list of correspondences in beef cuts that is accurate and usable for readers of Flavors of Brazil.

One cut of beef that I have frequently come across in supermarkets and butcher shops here in Fortaleza, and which I have enjoyed on a number of occasions, is called cupim. My curiosity was piqued the first time I spotted it in a butcher shop, as I knew that the word cupim meant "termite" in Portuguese. The red, boneless, fat-marbled piece of beef I saw on display seemed to have nothing to do with wood-eating insects (fortunately!). Research among recipes for cupim revealed that the cut is roasted or stewed, and is also sometimes featured in the menu of Brazilian churrascos, or barbeques. I actually tasted cupim for the first time in a churrascaria, a Brazilian meat-orgy style of restaurant where waiters circle the tables with cuts of meat on large swords, offering slices to diners. I found it very rich, quite fatty, and with a tender, stringy texture. For me, cupim is more a cut for pot-roast or stew and less for the grill. Cooking it in liquid disperses the fat (which can be skimmed off) and makes cupim less greasy.

Questions posed to Brazilian friends about what part of the body cupim comes from didn't yield too much information at first, though one friend used the unfamiliar word corcova  and pointed to his back. It was time to hit the internet to figure this one out. Corcova turned out to mean "hunchback" or "hump" and from there it required only a small bit of internet research to nail down exactly what cupim is. A large portion of the cattle raised for beef in Brazil are in fact zebus and not the same species as European and North American beef cattle. Zebus came originally from India and are the primary beef animal throughout the tropical world, as they are exceptionally tolerant to heat and drought. In fact, they constitute 80% of all the beef cattle raised in Brazil. The primary physical characteristics of zebus that distinguish them from taurine beef cattle are drop ears and a large hump atop the spine just behind the head. Bingo - there's the cupim! It's nothing more or less then the hump of a zebu.

Since most North American and European beef comes from taurine cattle, it turns out that you're unlikely to encounter cupim in those regions under any name. Because Brazil is a major exporter of beef to those regions, it's likely that you might have eaten zebu at some time without realizing it, but because cuts of beef tend to be culturally determined, cupim doesn't share in that export market. It stays home in Brazil, for the delectation of Brazilians and tourists who are adventurous enough to try it when the passing waiter in a churrascaria offers it.

1 comment:

  1. Hello...it is in fact related to termites...it is called that way because it resembles a termite mound in the pastures...

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