Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cuzcuz - Brazil's Couscous But-Not-Quite

packaged cuzcuz
Cuzcuz is one of the most traditional of all Brazilian dishes, or rather I should say family of dishes as there are numerous regional, local and even familial variations. Though the Portuguese word cuzcuz certainly looks a lot like the English word couscous - which isn't really an English word at all but a borrowing of a French word, which in turn is a Europeanization of a Berber word from North Africa - cuzcuz and couscous are two different things entirely. Well, not entirely as both words refer to a mixture of a grain semolina and a liquid - other than that they're quite distinctive.

In English and in most European tongues, couscous refers to wheat semolina which has been steamed until moist and soft and which is served as an accompaniment to meat, poultry, fish or vegetarian main dishes, usually with some sort of a sauce. This wheat-semolina couscous does exist in Brazil, but it's distinguished from "garden variety" cuzcuz by being called cuzcuz marroquino (Morrocan couscous).

Brazilian cuzcuz is made from grains like European or North African couscous, but the grain is most often corn (maize) although sometimes it is manioc, or a mixture of maize and manioc. Both of these grains are New World in origin, unlike wheat, yet Brazilian cuzcuz is very much a product of the Portuguese colonization of this part of the Americas. The Portuguese learned of couscous in North Africa and brought it to Portugal a very long time ago. The name is mentioned in a play published by  Portuguese playwright Gil Vicente in 1525. It was brought to Brazil by Portuguese explorers and "americanized" by substituting local grains corn and manioc for European wheat.

plain cuzcuz
The tradition of cooking cuzcuz became associated with the settlement of what is now the state of São Paulo in southeastern Brazil, and in particular with the historic towns and village of the Vale do Paraíba, the Paraíba river valley. The original cuzcuz from this region, according to Brazilian food historians, consisted simply of corn or manioc semolina, salt and pepper, steamed over water. Unlike North African or European couscous, the mixture was steamed until it became quite moist and moldable, almost like a cake (think of polenta). Later additions included onion and garlic and paste (annattourucum) to give it some color.

In the 10th century, cuzcuz moved upmarket, and in the hands of the cooks of the local aristocracy, became more elaborate and opulent - new and sophisticated ingredients like canned sardines, fresh shrimp, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, peas and tomatoes were added to the molded dish. The result was what has come to be known as cuzcuz Paulista - that is cuzcuz in the manner of São Paulo state.

Other regions of Brazil have different ways of elaborating this simple dish. In the northeast, coconut milk is added to the grain to give it a richness of flavor. In Minas Gerais, they substitute chicken for the shrimp. There are even sweet versions made into desserts. But the most iconic of all cuzcuz dishes is cuzcuz Paulista - a staple of buffet tables, wedding suppers and sunday family lunches that somehow encapsulates the culinary history of  São Paulo.

Tomorrow's post on Flavors of Brazil will include a recipe for cuzcuz Paulista.

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