Beans, all over the world, are soul food. Cook fava beans, mash with garlic, olive oil, salt and maybe a little lemon juice, and you have a dish that will bring tears to many a child of the Mediterranean. Beans are a staple in many cuisines because they are nutritious and cheap. In the Americas, beans rule. And they even signify; thus an old pejorative for a Latino is “beaner.”
Lest anyone take offense, remember that Boston, that WASP bastion, is called “Beantown” for its old-line residents’ inordinate fondness for baked beans. (I’m biased toward Latin beans, or maybe I’ve never had a proper pot of baked beans, though since I yield to the French on all matters culinary, I would tell Bostonians, “Let them eat cassoulet.”)
We Cubans are known for our black beans — a Cuban cook is only as good as his/her frijoles negros. But our menu also includes red beans, lentils, split peas and all the bean soups we inherited from Spain, which we serve with white rice. Like other Caribbean people, we cook beans and rice together, in moros y cristianos (black beans) or congri oriental (red beans).
Our neighbors in the English-speaking Antilles make rice and peas, a classic side dish sometimes cooked in coconut milk, with pigeon peas. The latter is the favorite of Puerto Ricans, arroz con gandules being a definitive dish of the island. And Puerto Ricans make killer red beans, which they like to eat with yellow rice, something Cubans would not do (except for this Cuban, who loves Puerto Rican food). Red beans are also basic among Colombians, and they, like Cubans and Puerto Ricans, cook them with calabaza squash. Jump over to Mexico and our compadres eat black beans redolent of the wonderful epazote herb.
Then there’s Brazil. Feijoada is a weekend dish, served at the traditional mid-afternoon meal, and a good thing, too, because it takes the rest of the day to digest. North Beach’s Little Brazil Restaurant makes a great weekend feijoada. There are no truly weird piggy parts, but it’s rich indeed and served as it should be, with white rice, topped at the table with sautéed collard greens and farofa (ground manioc — yuca — toasted with pork crackling) and spiked, if one wishes, with a hot salsa. The marriage of flavors is extraordinary.
I tasted other traditional dishes there, too, and they were fine, though not at the same level. A moqueca fish and shrimp stew is served with tilapia, and when I objected to that tasteless farm-raised fish they happily substituted more substantial grouper. I would have liked the dish even better if it had been kicked up a notch with the enthusiastic use of malagueta peppers.
No matter, the feijoada is enough for Little Brazil to deserve its accolades. Curiously, Cuban frijoles negros, which has a similar taste, is one of my native country’s rare vegetarian dishes. But, according to legendary Cuban cookbook author Nitza Villapol, black bean recipes from colonial times included beef jerky, just like Brazilian feijoada.
Villapol doesn’t say if other piggy parts made it into the colonial pot, but I’m willing to bet they did. Soul food the world over has much in common. The cuisine of the people makes soul brothers and sisters of us all.