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The economics behind feijoada, Brazil's signature dish

Consisting of a black bean stew with a variety of cuts of pork, feijoada is widely known as Brazil's national dish. And it boosts two of the country's biggest agricultural production chains

Feijoada is one of the signature dishes of Brazilian cuisine. Comprising a stew of black beans and various cuts of pork, it is customarily served with rice, sauteed kale, fried cassava flour, banana, and — if you’re lucky — a whole pork chop. The prefix -ada signifies that feijoada is more of an event than a meal, and friends and family traditionally gather around the table at Saturday lunchtime to tuck into plateful after plateful of what is largely considered to be Brazil’s national dish.

Feijoada not only fuels millions of Brazilians around the country each week, it also provides a crucial boost to two of Brazil’s most important agricultural production chains: pig farming and the cultivation of beans, which produced more than BRL 40 billion ($ 7.5 billion) combined in 2020 alone.

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While the dish of pork and black beans itself is largely associated with the Southeast of the country — while the North, Northeast, and Center-West have their own regional variations of feijoada — its ingredients are overwhelmingly cultivated and produced in the South.

The states of Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Rio Grande do Sul are Brazil’s largest pork producers, while the majority of black beans come from farms in Paraná.

And Brazil’s farmers want more. According to the Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Confederation, they intend to further increase the consumption of these foodstuffs.

Pass the pork …

Pork is the third-most purchased meat in Brazil, behind chicken and beef. Brazilians consume an average of 17.5 kilos of pork each year. But this total is growing, with the annual quantity of pork consumed per capita increasing by 8 kg in the last five years.

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According to statistics agency IBGE, there are more than 40 million pigs in Brazil, raised by more than 20,000 producers. The industry generates roughly 1 million direct and indirect jobs, according to data from the Brazilian Pig Farmers Association (ABCS), which hopes for an increase of 4 percent this year, thanks to difficulties in the world’s largest pork producer, China

Since the end of 2018, China has faced a severe outbreak of African swine fever, which has devastated the country’s pig herds.

The sale of Brazilian pork to China increased 40 percent between January and November last year.

But Brazilian producers are unable to fully meet the demand. The country produces a little over 4 million tons of pork each year, with 80 percent being kept back for the domestic market — much of it going into massive bubbling cauldrons alongside black beans.

… But hold the beans

Unlike pork, the consumption of beans in Brazil is diminishing year on year. Until 10 years ago, the average Brazilian ate 17 kg of beans per year — this has now fallen to 14 kg. At the same time, farmers are beginning to pay less and less attention to cultivating the pulses that make up the backbone of Brazil’s traditional diet.

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The planted area of beans in Brazil has fallen by around 40 percent between 2015 and forecasts for this year. With growing uncertainty about food prices, farmers have focused on more profitable and predictable grains, such as soybeans and corn, of which Brazil is a major exporter.

With a smaller harvest and more exports — due to the increased appetite for beans in Europe and China — the humble grain was one of the big villains of Brazil’s lofty food inflation in 2020. According to the National Consumer Price index, black beans became 40.75 percent more expensive over last year.

African, European, or Brazilian? The feijoada origin story

Typically, feijoada is talked about as a strictly Brazilian dish. Its supposed origin story is tied to Brazil’s own history, as many locals will tell you that feijoada was invented by African slaves, who used beans and cheap offcuts of pork — unwanted by their masters — to make this now iconic stew.

However, this fable is rejected by culinary researchers, such as Luis Câmara Cascudo — in his book História da Alimentação no Brasil — and professor Henrique Carneiro, among others.

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Indeed, they affirm that feijoada has strictly European roots, as a Brazilian version of a French cassoulet or Portuguese cozido, primarily made from beans and pork.

But feijoada, in itself, has Brazilian characteristics. Black beans originate from South America, as does the cassava flour served alongside it. According to sociologist and researcher Carlos Alberto Dória, feijoada owes its roots to feijão gordo — “fatty beans” — which is a dish consisting of stewed beans with bacon and jerked beef. Feijoada, in his view, is nothing more than a turbo-charged version of this traditional Brazilian meal, adding sausages, a wide array of pork cuts, and kale.

Indeed, the very presence of pig trotters, snout, ear, and tail casts doubt over the traditional feijoada origin story. As Mr. Câmara Cascudo points out, the vast majority of African slaves in Brazil were Muslim and thus did not consume pork. He goes as far as to suggest the feijoada we know today is little more than a combination dreamt up by elite Brazilian restaurants in the 19th century.

Feijoada’s assent to becoming Brazil’s national dish can largely be attributed to the Modernists and the government of Getúlio Vargas in the 1930s, both keen on constructing a national Brazilian identity.

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As a dish, feijoada symbolized the Brazilian nation, characterized by the modernist idea of anthropophagy — literally, cannibalism — in the way it surged as a result of consuming other cultures around the world.

In his celebrated book Macunaíma, modernist writer Mário de Andrade highlighted this perspective during a scene in which the eponymous anti-hero attends a party at the home of a wealthy farmer. According to Mr. Doria, the passage is an allegory of Brazilian cuisine and the range of ethnicities that have influenced and become a part of Brazil.

Vinicius de Moraes, one of the country’s most famous poets, also wrote about the national dish in his poem “Feijoada My Way,” ending by depicting the feeling after devouring a plate of the delicious pork and bean stew.

“What more pleasure can the body ask for
After eating such beans?
Evidently a hammock
And a cat to stroke.”

This article was originally published on The Brazilian Report, a website that explains Brazilian politics and economics to foreign audiences.