May 17 • 1HR 12M

Episode #42: Paulo Machado

Cookbook author, chef, and food tour operator based in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil.

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The New Worlder podcast explores the world of food and travel in the Americas and beyond. Hosted by James Beard nominated writer Nicholas Gill, each episode features a long form interview with chefs, conservationists, scientists, farmers, writers, foragers, and more.
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Paulo Machado is an author, a researcher, a chef and a food tour operator from Campo Grande in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul in southwestern Brazil. Much of our conversation is about the Pantanal, the rich biome with an incredible food culture where he is from and has been exploring for decades. He writes about in his book Cozinha Pantaneira: Comitiva de Sabores. I mention this to Paulo, but I’m fascinated by Brazil’s regional cuisines. I have made dozens of trips there over the years and I still feel like I have only scratched the surface. That I don’t know anything. It’s such a big country and the biodiversity is so rich, not to mention the cultural diversity. The Pantanal is really unknown to me, though I have always been fascinated but what I have heard of it. It’s a place very unto itself. Like Paulo. He’s a unique character and I have always enjoyed speaking with him whenever I have the chance. He’s so positive and enthusiastic about the region’s food. It’s hard not to absorb some of that.

– Nicholas Gill

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Photo credit: Lucas Possiede

Episode Highlights

On climate and biodiversity in the Pantanal:

Paulo: “We are talking about a land that is the biggest plains area in the world. Like a swamp, the biggest swamp in the world, where one big part of the year it gets flooded and the other part of the year it gets really, really dry. Every year is more or less like that. And for the past seven years we are having this phenomenon where it is very dry. The rains have been very low compared to other times, and of course, the climate changing everything that is happening, causing a lot of alarm.”

Nick: “So it's, it's like the Amazon. It's just getting drier and drier during the dry season. But is the rainy season still kind of holding? Is there still a lot of rain? Or is it less?”

Paulo: “It's usually less. It's funny. It's funny because this time of the year, usually, we don't have rain anymore. But it is raining and raining. We had rain last month, we are having rain like this also in the season. But what happens is that…let's say right now the winter is approaching. So the climate gets a little cold, though not as cold as North America, of course. But the sun makes everything very dry, very quick. We have to take a lot of care to not have fires, again, like we had two years ago, which were a disaster. So we have to be very attentive about every move in the season at this time of the year.”

Nick: “So we're here to talk about your book.”

Paulo: “I started the research about 15 years ago after I was studying in France and I decided to come back to my country and look at my origins, as we didn't have any books or things registering what we have about the food of the Pantanal area. So I started to develop this research with other chefs and researchers. And I also made a master's in hospitality, where my work was to write about the way the people in the Pantanal receive each other, all the rituals about hospitality, the foods we have had in the past and until the present day. And at the end of all, I of course, said OK, I need to have a book. And it was not easy to find sponsors for the money because I of course wanted something good and with good quality photos. And in historical research, which we had Christiana Couto, which is the researcher that helped with all the historical data of my book. So, I was the lucky to find the people from

Documenta Pantanal, which is an organization that started to look at the culture and everything, all the richness we have in this area of the world. So I presented them my project. And right before the pandemic, we started to do the pictures. It was, in a way very amazing how we did it because in February [2020] in Brazil, we yet didn't have this situation the whole word was getting into . So I was in Pantanal doing the pictures with photographers, spending 20 days traveling with a small plane from here to there, and listening to the news in Italy and saying, Oh my god, what is going on? But we were lucky to have all the pictures, everything done in February and then in March 2020 the book was ready. So, the book was released during the pandemic and I never had a signing or anything.”

Nick: But I mean, that's why we're here mow. We're on the other end now. Now you can talk about the book and people can read it and go to the Pantanal and do all these things that should have happened, a year ago. So, let's talk about this book because I've been reading through it and it's wonderful because the Pantanal is one part of Brazil, one part of South America that it's so unique. It's such as special region, but it's one of the places I probably know the least about. Which excites me because I know there's such rich biodiversity. There are so many different cultures there, and we'll talk about that too. But I love Brazilian regional food. I don't know how many trips I've made to Brazil, but I still feel like I haven't scratched the surface of the regions of Brazil and the cuisine of every region. And the last few trips I've taken…to Bahia and São Gabriel do Cachoeira, and I keep going to all these places, and they're so unbelievably different. The ingredients, the cultures, everything. In the food in the way it's on the plate. It's all so different. But the Pantanal has this as well. It has these very strong culinary traditions of cuisine. Plus, it's in the south and I don't know the south very well. My experience in the south is São Paulo, or you know, I went to Iguazu once.”

Paulo: “We are exactly in the center, west part of Brazil, close to south, I mean in the border with southern part and also the southeast. And also in our North is Amazonia and also, but we don't have frontier with northeast for an example, so we are far away from the food that is very marked with the traditions of African culture and the Dendê palm oil that is used a lot in Bahia, for an example. But what is very interesting about our gastronomical culture is that because we are near Paraguay and Bolivia, so we have what we call a frontier food. I always defend that because it's a fusion between the original South America traditional flavors. We have for example escabeches, sashimis, which is a Japanese dish, and also ceviche. We have eaten it for many years, but we never gave these names for it. We have a special citrus that we use with the fish from the river that is raw, and we eat that when we fish and the flavor is unique because you are talking about something that is super fresh. The fish piraña or pintado, which eat small fruits from the rivers, you get these flavors from it when fresh from that are just wonderful. If you take this fish in and take few hours to eat it the flavor will be totally different, which the people in the Amazon people call it pitchu, which is a flavor that is not so good because it develops like an earthy flavor. But if it's fresh, if you take a few minutes when take it out from the river and prepare as a sashimi or as ceviche, a really quick dish, you have an amazing product.

It's very interesting when I talk about sashimi because we also have influences from Japan, from Japanese people, and from Lebanese people, from Syrian people. So, the area I am from has this wonderful emigration from people from all over, from different parts of the world. And this is significant because of the way we eat. For example, how we eat yuca. We cook it in water just boiled with shoyu. So when we go to the markets at night because here's so hot during the day, the people at the farmers markets are the sons and grandsons of Japanese families. They sell their vegetables and also their food, which is yakiitori, skewered meats, and they also sell yuca, which is super tender, with shoyu.

Soba is also a special dish from Okinawa, from south of Japan as soup, but we that dish is the traditional dish from Campo Grande, from my hometown. So that Pantanal area you can find soba, which is originally from the other side of the world.”

Nick: “Is it prepared like are there any local ingredients?”

Paulo: “It is not the same Soba as you get in Japan, first of all, because in Okinawa they are well known for the consumption of pork. So they do they stock with pork in Okinawa originally, but here because we have more or less 200 years an economy based on cattle production, we do the stock with the bones of the beef. So the Japanese they find this protein that is so much cheaper in the area and they adapted it. So, you can find the Okinawa soba with pork, but here the original way is with beef, and of course the flavor changes a little bit, but basically it's the same thing. I mean you have the egg, you have the noodles, though that is also something different. We don't have the same kind of dough that they have in Japan. We use regular flour, buut to give the color that is a little gray, there is a family that puts a little bit of ash, which gives a color to the noodles, which is amazing. I mean, they developed something here with a tradition from Japan.”


The Pantanal’s cattle culture

Nick: “Many of the stories based around these Comitivas. These are groups of cattle drivers that take cattle from one place to the other. One thing I found fascinating was in all of these groups, the central figure is the cook.”

Paulo: “That's right, that's right.”

Nick: “So why is the cook important? Like the most important person. It's like they lead the pack. They decide when to go and when to eat meals. They are the best paid also, which I found interesting. This seems to never happened, the cook being the best paid.”

Paulo: “So Nicholas, this guy, I cannot say he's the wisest guy, but he's the most important figure because he feeds the group. And he literally has with him the horses and also the mules and all the containers that we call bruacas and he goes ahead of the group. He's the one that maintains the open air kitchen with only fire and maybe one or two pans. And he has to make magic with three or four ingredients to feed these people that are very hungry. and if he doesn't make good food he'll be fired. Because these people are hungry.”

Nick: “I mean, if he's the best paid, they must have high expectations as well. Like you better do a good job.”

Paulo: “So yeah, usually these guys are older. They know very well how to control the fire, how to control the amount of meat, for example of dry meat, the jerked beef that we made originally here, because if you have a comitiva that will last five days, eight days or one month, which nowadays is not so common, you have to be very careful with the amount of meat you're using on the rice or the pasta, because at the end of the comitiva you don't have any more protein. So how are you going to make food out of only one ingredient? Usually the food has a lot of fat too, usually fat from pork and nowadays from vegetable oil. But the food has a lot of flavor because you burn a lot the back of the pan with the fire in the flavors. And let's say you do a big massage with the water basically. And then you have a food that has a lot in common, I always say, with the Cajun foods, that are very terra cotta and not so many ingredients. You always use a lot of water in the food. Basically from dried ingredients that you can combine with the water and you have explosion of flavors.”

Also very important, the cook, we call him the cuca, he is the guy that carries the money from everybody from the comitiva. So, all of the security is with him. And also there is something important about, that if one of the other guys doesn't serve the food exactly the right way, for an example, the oldest worker always is the one that is going to be served first, if he breaks the rules, in the next stop, he has to pay for a chicken or a piece of meat that will be used in the food again. The cuca controls all of that.”


On the love of dried beef in Brazil:

Nick: “You mentioned dried beef. So in Brazil, dried beef is used a lot. When I was writing The Latin American Cookbook, I came across it again and again. And in the Pantanal there are different forms of it. You have like Carne do Sol, which is sun dried beef that you find everywhere. Right?”

Paulo: “Nicholas, this is a challenge for us. We have to do a book about the Brazilian dried beef.”

Nick: “There could be. I mean, there's like a whole world of it.”

Paulo: “Every time I research more, I discover something new. A different name for it in a different season. And it’s amazing. I mean basically what I say to make things easy even for my students, I suppose there are two kinds, one that is not so salted, which we call carne do sol. That is usually used in the northeast of Brazil, also in the Pantanal. This kind of meat is usually found in areas where you have refrigeration. So put salt to change the texture of the meat, which we Brazilians love, but you also don't need to remove the salt when you use this. Then you have the jerked beef, which is can be industrial or made in the farms, which will have a lot of salt. And to use that meat you definitely will need to soak it in water for at least one day and a half or maybe to cook for many hours to take out all this out. Otherwise, you cannot eat it because it's so strong. In Paraguay, they call it cecina. Industrial versions add a lot of stuff to it. Not only salt. But if you have a homemade jerky from the Pantanal, you will have a very strong flavor umami.”

Nick: “That's something I also discovered. This homemade dried beef is amazing. But so much of the dried beef that's sold around Latin America, not just Brazil, is this industrial version that just like tastes like shit. It doesn't taste like anything.”

Paulo: “The first thing that defines how horrible it is is the color. When you see that they are red, you will say Oh, it’s not only salt here. There is a bunch of shit on that.”

Nick: “And in the Pantanal you also have xarne oreada, right? Which is wind dried. This is fascinating to me. So, this isn't exposed to the sun, but is it salt still salted?”

Paulo: “It's not exposed in the sun directly. The amount of salt is less than the jerked, the carne seca. The jerked beef translation would be carne seca, or cecina for the Paraguayans. What defines the carne oreada here in the Pantanal, is not only the amount of salt, which is less, but also the seasonings. Sometimes they use garlic, and dried chiles. You put this all together with the salt and the garlic, and you put these on the meat. And then you do the oreada process to the meat.”

Nick: “The process is wind, right? Does it have like a like a funkier stronger flavor than carne do sol?”

Paulo: “So when we talk about the wind is like this, we have a little house, like a warehouse where you conserve this meat. And this house is tailored to preserve the meat from any contamination of bugs. And then the wind comes inside of this. And basically this meat stays overnight, which we also call carne de serreno or serrenada. Sometimes these houses aren’t covered, but only a little cover for the bugs. But you also have a little bit of the humidity from the night. All of this gives a special flavor, a funky flavor to this meat, which is a lot of umami, a super explosion.

Sometimes I teach in my classes how to make these other meats in your house. And it's super easy. Basically you have the salt and you have the chile and the garlic. You combine all of that and you rub that on the meat. Let's say for one kilo of meat, about 150 grams of the seasoning. And you put this all over the meat and you leave in your refrigerator, because the refrigerator is very dry. And it's in very good condition. And basically from one day to the other overnight, and then the next day you just wash it. The meat will start to have the osmosis process, which concentrates all the flavor and you can eat this meat as a tartare if you want, or you can put it in the charbroiler. And you have an churrasco. A homemade churrasco.”


On the indigenous harvested wild rice from the Pantanal:

Nick: “There's one ingredient [from the book] that I really found interesting. There's native rice. A wild rice collected during the flood season, like a brownish red rice.”

Paulo: “It’s super nice that you're talking about it because this ingredient we don't have yet to buy. Sometimes in my in my hometown here in Campo Grande, there is a market, there is a special part of the market where the indigenous people come from their lands and they bring special ingredients. Sometimes you can find it there. When the university found that rice – which is a cereal and is not really a rice, it's like more or less like Canadian wild rice – they and they start to do research to see how this rice can be commercialized because the flavors are super interesting. The nutritional value is also amazing. And it's very interesting because as Pantanal is a wetland, we have a large production of rice, a big industry in Brazil. We always value the white rice and the producers see this wild rice and the call it a plague. They say, no this is not the rice you want. So they're taking trying to remove it. But now the the university and special producers are saying wait a minute. We have something valuable here. A super good product. That's why I put in my book. Slow Food even put it in their Ark of Taste.”

Nick: “It's probably full of nutrients. It's probably super healthy for you.”

Paulo: “It's one of those things that I think is something that is going to be big in the near future. Like quinoa a few years ago. It's super amazing product. Unfortunately, I'm here now and I'm going to go to Spain tomorrow. I want to bring it, but I don't have it. The last two years, we have had a dry season and it didn’t grow. You know, so I’m waiting for the time to get more Arroz Panteneiro. We call it Arroz-nativo-do-Pantanal. Or Machamo. That's the name we use.

When that when the university gave me a sample, I had the chance to bring it to many chefs in São Paulo. Claude Troigras who had it. I think I had a little in D.O.M. with Alex Atala. Mara Salles had some. Everybody was amazed about it. But again, I mean, we were talking about something that hasn’t been commercialized yet. It is really, really raw. Less than the [Brazilian] truffle.”

Nick: “That's the thing. Like, you have a rice this special. It's probably more special than the truffle and it's from Brazil. That's the speech. You have these truffles, but you're more excited about this wild rice.”

Quotes from this interview have been gently edited for context and clarity.

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