RIO DE JANEIRO — It's bad enough that so few people outside Brazil know much about the country's cuisine. But Alex Atala finds it particularly galling that even at home it rarely gets the respect it deserves.
"We are so proud of our soccer, our models, our music, our graffiti artists. Why is no one excited about Brazilian food?" the nation's No. 1 chef — and the man behind Sao Paulo-based D.O.M., one of the top-ranked restaurants in the world — said in a recent telephone interview. "Brazilian food is so amazingly diverse, and we have to celebrate that."
A desire to correct this spurred him to write "D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients," a sumptuous new cookbook that Atala hopes will propel Brazilian food onto the world's culinary stage. And once foreigners wake up to Brazilian food, Atala reasons, Brazilians themselves might just give their own, long-neglected culinary legacy its due.
Atala acknowledges that many of the ingredients used in the book are not readily available even in most Brazilian supermarkets, let alone in the United States, Australia or Britain — the cookbook's target markets. But that's beside the point, he insists.
"The main idea of the book wasn't to make recipes to be reproduced," he said. "It was to provoke people to taste Brazil, to get them curious about Brazilian foods and ingredients."
Brazil is known mostly for its workaday rice and bean dish "feijoada," as well as its all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurants, or "churascarias." But Atala thinks he can push readers well beyond that.
The book is full of surprising and downright bizarre ingredients, from the Brazilian sea snail, which Atala says are tastier and less fatty than their North American cousin, to the "priprioca," an aromatic herb that's described as tasting like a cross between vanilla and earth. And don't forget "jambu," an Amazon herb that the book explains "creates a short circuit of our taste buds," like an electric shock to the tongue.
Most of the recipes — many of them rather complicated affairs — require hours of painstaking preparation. The "Langoustine with mini rice and any powder," for example, involves preparing a pickled white radish, a broth made from langoustine heads, the actual crustaceans themselves, as well as an ant powder made from dried and ground "sauva ants," typically used by the indigenous peoples of northern Brazil as a spice.
Atala, a Sao Paulo native whose trademark camouflage of tattoos testifies to his years as a teenage punk, got his start in the restaurant business during a backpacking trip to Europe, where he worked in kitchens of celebrated chefs in Belgium, France and Italy. He returned to Brazil and applied the methods he'd learned to native Brazilian foods.
But before Brazilian food can truly take its place on the world's collective dinner plate, Atala says the Brazilian people themselves must learn to appreciate their own cuisine.
"It's funny that in Brazil, people know so much about different kinds of pasta and can tell you all the different properties of different sorts of flour," but know very little about native Brazilian ingredients and techniques, said Atala, whose on-stage slaughtering of chickens has cemented his reputation as a bad boy of haute cuisine. "I'd say the average Brazilian has never tasted at least 50 percent of the ingredients in this book."
One reason for that is the colonial legacy of this former Portuguese colony, which traditionally valued imported European foods and looked down on native ingredients. To this day, the most ubiquitous fish on Brazilian menus remains cod, which is caught off the icy waters of Scandinavia, salted and shipped to Brazil — a country with its 7,500 kilometers (4,660 miles) of coastline.
Red tape in this notoriously bureaucratic nation also has been a stumbling block. For example, longstanding sanitary regulations virtually stifled the use of honey produced by the country's native bees. Similarly, regulations on the interstate transport of cheese between Brazil's 26 states have stymied the development of what Atala called a "world-class cheese" from the central Minas Gerais state.
"If Parmesan was born in Minas Gerais, it would be an unknown cheese today," Atala said.