Lost in Translation: Cooking Brazilian Feijoada with my boyfriend
By Branca Lessa de Sa
In my house, we have a tradition. Every year before our annual visit to Brazil, my brother and I will list, in order of preference, the foods that we are most looking forward to eating when we’re there. “Pão de queijois a must” he’ll say, while I respond with “what about feijoada?” When we have arrived in Brazil, it never feels like we’re fully there until we’ve sat down in the small kitchen of our apartment with the fresh bread and requeijão (Brazilian soft cheese) out, slathering a generous amount of it onto a carelessly ripped out section of the roll, crumbs spilling everywhere, cheese swirling in our mouths. We’ll put our feet up, and smile at each other with the kind of tacit understanding only shared by siblings who have moved across continents together. From that point on, we know we’re home.
It’s funny how even the simplest things like bread and cheese, when eaten in your home country, in the way you used to have them growing up, feel so utterly satisfying. Everything is just right—the smell, the taste, the company, the setting. But the feelings are not so simple when we eat these foods here, in our adopted home. Pure, indulgent satisfaction is replaced by a messy concoction of disappointment, longing, joy, and compromise.
Take, for example, when I tried to cook a feijoada with my boyfriend at university. Feijoada is the pride and joy of Brazilian cuisine, a black bean stew with pork and vegetables, thick and hearty and bursting with flavour. In Brazil, it’s usually prepared over low heat in a thick clay pot, and served with rice and farofa (a toasted manioc flour mixture). Usually made in massive batches, it tends to feed a whole family or party on a special occasion.
Mine and my boyfriend’s approach was somewhat less ambitious. After deciding to take the plunge and give the dish a go in my cramped, ill-equipped student kitchen, we headed to the supermarket to buy the ingredients. To our dismay, we couldn’t find black beans anywhere, and had to settle for red kidney beans. From then on, it seemed all our efforts were doomed. Our student budget meant that the usual assortment of ham and pork had to be replaced by a meagre amount of chorizo, which we found on the reduced section. A true feijoadacan take almost an entire day to make, but we hadn’t t the time nor the patience for that.
The product of our hour-long efforts was some crushed beans with a few bits of ham, a little too dry and a little too bland. “I mean….,” said my boyfriend, staring at the pan, “I guess we tried.” Even his optimism couldn’t account for this. We filled our plates with rice and a spoonful of our unique dish and sat on the living room sofa while my housemates passed by and stared quizzically. “Is that… feijoada?” asked my Brazilian housemate. “This? I said, trying my best to sound incredulous. “No, no, of course not. Just some beans.”
Discovering the story behind the dish
While our cooking venture may not have been as successful as we had hoped, we learnt a lot. My boyfriend’s curiosity about Brazilian culture prompted me to look into the dish’s origins. The results were surprising. Nowadays, feijoada is a meal enjoyed in all Brazilian households, but that hasn’t always been the case. While contested, it is widely believed that feijoada was first developed by slaves, who put together scraps of meat and beans from their owners to make a hearty, filling stew.
I was shocked to learn this. At home, I had always taken feijoada for granted. It was so commonplace to me that I had never thought to interrogate its origins: it was just feijoada. But the truth is that the dish speaks to Brazil’s long and fraught history with slavery. The country was the last to abolish it, in May 1888, after a long and protracted struggle. Its legacy remains in Brazil’s deeply entrenched social divisions, but also, as evidenced by feijoada, in its culture and food.
Bonding Through food
Despite the disappointment of the end product then, the process of cooking a Brazilian dish with my boyfriend was an important one. Admittedly, a lot was lost in translation. The famed Brazilian black feijão, in our not-so-capable hands, became a red kidney feijao (without an accent, as per my boyfriend’s pronunciation). But a lot was also gained—not only in my knowledge of the dish’s origins, but also in our relationship. My boyfriend slowly learnt to pronounce ‘feijoada’ right (just about), and as we bent over our version of the dish that defined most of the major events in the first ten years of my life—from birthday parties to world cup finals—I felt a little closer to him, and a little closer to home.
Living away from Brazil
My friend Clara, another Brazilian living in the UK, has had similar experiences to mine. Living many miles apart from her immediate family, cooking food from home bares even greater urgency for her. But as for me, it is an experience far from perfect, riddled with mixed feelings. "One of the saddest things about moving abroad is that you can no longer have 'arrozcom feijão' (rice with beans),” she tells me. “The closest I've come to it is pre-prepared Jamaican black beans that my local shop doesn't stock, so requires a bit more shopping around to find. It's not the same taste, but it's close enough to feel like home."
That sense of homecoming, however murky and indefinite, is what makes cooking food from your home country in your host country a worthwhile pursuit for many first and second generation immigrants. Feijoada-gate was not the first disappointment I experienced from eating Brazilian food in the UK, and I doubt it will be the last. As Clara points out, true feijão is very difficult to find here. But that’s okay. Gradually, I’ve learnt that cooking or buying my favourite comidas (Brazilian food) in the UK is an art of compromise. That compromise, and the mishaps and mistranslations that make it, is what brings me closer to my British friends and loved ones.