Whenever I travel across a new country, I’m always on the lookout for new snacks to turn my readers onto. Pao de Queijo (literally, “cheese bread”) is a snack widely enjoyed in Brazil. It can be eaten for breakfast or as a quick bite during the day. Whenever you choose to eat it, be warned: this dish can be quite addicting!
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How Pao de Queijo is Made
Chalk it up to my curious nature, but while traveling throughout Brazil, I couldn’t help but take a deep dive into the process behind pao de queijo. Roughly the size of a golf ball, pao de queijo has a slightly crunchy exterior and a soft, chewy interior (my favorite texture combination, by the way). It’s great for popping in your mouth—one after the other. While variations exist, the dough is often made from tapioca flour, which gives it its soft texture and slightly tangy flavor. Tapioca – by the way – is made from the cassava root, a staple in Brazilian cooking (you may remember from my previous article that cassava is an important ingredient in feijoada). Cheese – traditionally a Brazilian variety called Minas cheese, though many modern recipes call for shredded mozzarella – is then added to the dough. The cheesy, doughy mixture is baked to a perfect golden brown. Sorry, I just made myself really hungry.
The Origins of Pao de Queijo
While eaten all over Brazil – and even parts of neighboring Argentina – pao de queijo originated in the mountainous southeastern state of Minas Gerais (Brazil’s second largest state by population, after Sao Paulo). Like feijoada, pao de queijo’s fascinating origins involved enslaved Brazilians. Cassava (more commonly known here as “yuca”) was the ingredient of choice for dough making in Minas Gerais, since that was one of the few staple crops that could grow in the state’s hard soil. Before the cassava root could be baked, it had to first be peeled, grated, soaked, and dried—all to remove the deadly cyanide contained in the plant. This process left behind a fine tapioca powder, which Brazilian slaves would roll into balls and bake, in order to fortify their diet.
Eventually, with the advent of Brazil’s dairy industry in the 19th century, cheese was added to the mix, creating the pao de queijo that we know and love today. I have seen this tasty treat at bars, food carts, and grocery stores, but it all started as a way for enslaved Brazilians to get some extra nutrients. If there is one thing I have learned from my culinary travels and research, it is that in situations of scarcity, people make the best of what’s available, often with lasting results.
My fellow vegans, fear not: there are vegan alternatives for this beloved Brazilian snack. As a bonus, most of these vegan alternatives are also gluten free! In most vegan variations, the cheese is replaced with mashed potato (for texture) and nutritional yeast. Since nutritional yeast is often described as having a cheesy flavor, it makes a perfect substitute. Garlic and onions are often added for extra flavor. Even if you are not a vegan, you are sure to enjoy this healthier alternative to pao de queijo.
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