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Dona Brazi

November 29, 2009

Today we went to Livraria Cultura for a talk entitled “Nas fronteiras da culinária: índios e brancos em torno de panelas” with Dona Brazi, Alex Atala, and Carlos Alberto Dória.

Dona Brazi (or Josefa Gonçalves de Andrade) is a cook from São Gabriel da Cachoeira a village on the Rio Negro at the northernmost point of the state of Amazonas, close to the border with Colombia and Venezuela. She was brought to São Paulo by chef Alex Atala and sociologist Carlos Alberto Dória to talk about the indigenous cuisine of her village (which at 95% has the highest indigenous population of any municipality in Brazil).

Her story as a cook is a captivating tale of a homemaker who decided to venture into business in a local food court in the Amazon. She was selling the traditional native dishes that she was used to prepare but the landlords of the food court reprimanded her for not selling white people food; she was advised to adapt to the image that the food court was trying to represent, that of Western development. Dona Brazi gave up her business and returned to the life of a homemaker. But her cooking talents could not be held back and she started selling food from home. Her exceptional food captivated so many customers that eventually word got out and she was visited by all kinds of people interested in local native cuisine. Eventually she received a visit from sociologist Carlos Dória who was researching the culinary traditions of the Amazon. He liked her food so much that he came back with his friend, the renowned chef Alex Atala. Dona Brazi had no clue who this man was and why he traveled twelve hours by plane to come visit her kitchen in the remote corners of the Amazon. All of this led to her being invited to come to  São Paulo and share her experiences with a mesmerized audience of food professionals and gourmands.

There were several ingredients and dishes that she described; almost all of them I have never tasted. Her accounts sparked a desire in me (and most of the audience) to travel to the depths of the Amazon and experience this unique cuisine filled with exotic ingredients.

Dona Brazi caused a big sensation earlier in the year when she presented some dishes at the Paladar gastronomic festival. All accounts tell that people where lining up for seconds of her dish which included ants.

Alex Atala, Dona Brazi, and Carlos Dória

This talk has encouraged me to research more about the native ingredients and dishes from the Amazon. Some of the items mentioned by Dona Brazi were things that I have heard about before but almost all are things I have never tasted. I was also captivated by the type of work that Carlos Dória and Alex Atala have been doing to advance the position held by Brazilian gastronomy. I definitely plan to check out some of their books and also the work being done by Chef Atala at his restaurant D.O.M.

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