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Brazilian Foods With An Arab Touch

posted on: Apr 5, 2017

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

In the world of culinary art, Brazil is to Portugal what Mexico is to Spain. These two colonies in the New World were the crown jewels of their respective motherland. However, in their cuisines, both carrying deep Arab influences, there is a difference.

Even though many of the original colonists in both countries were Moors newly converted to Christianity, in Brazil, a huge number of African slaves were imported to work on the plantations. A good number of the latter were Muslims and their food was saturated with North African influences. In addition, the 20th century Arab immigrants to the country added another dimension to Brazilian food. Hence, the Moorish heritage of the Portuguese kitchen was further re-enforced by the dishes of West Africa and the Middle East.

Above all, it was the Portuguese influence, itself greatly influenced by the Arabs, which had the main hand in the creation of Brazilian cooking. When the Arabs conquered Portugal, they brought along with them numerous new dishes. For the needed ingredients to create these foods, they introduced a considerable number of vegetables and fruits, unheard of in the Iberian Peninsula at that time – many today still carrying in Portuguese their Arabic names. From among these: apricot in Portuguese albricogue comes from the Arabic al-barquq; carob (alfarroba: al-kharuba); orange (laranja; naranj); pomegranates (romã: rumman); rice (arroz: al-ruzz); and sugar (açúcar: al-sukkar).

The Arab introduced plants made possible a series of new culinary delights, expanding greatly the kitchen of the Iberian Peninsula. In Portuguese, Arabic derived names for foods are an undeniable testimony to the influence the Moors had on the cuisine in this part of Europe. Acepipe (hors d’oeuvres: from the Arabic al-zabib); aletria (vermicelli: itriya); almôndega (meat balls: al-bunduqiya) ; escabeche (pickles: al-sikbaj); azeite (olive oil: al-zait); sorvete (sherbet: sharba); and xarope (syrup: sharab) are a number of these foods.

All these culinary contributions the Arabs gave Portugal were later to be brought by the Portuguese to Brazil. This historical base of the Brazilian cuisine with its Arab connection was further buttressed in the last hundred years by the large immigration from the area of Greater Syria to all parts of this land of the Amazon. Today, in every large Brazilian town the eastern Arab delights of hummus bi-tahini (chickpea appetizer), sfeehah (open meat pies) the esfihas or esfirras of Brazil, tabbula (parsley salad) called in Portuguese tabule, and, above all, kubba (burghul and meat patties or pie) known in Brazil as kibe, are offered in many homes and public eating places.

The first time I entered a restaurant in Recife, Brazil’s major northeastern resort, I was astonished to see featured on the menu kibbe – a delicious dish whose original home is the Middle East. In the ensuing days I discovered that this famous Middle Eastern dish had become a Brazilian food. Served in a great number of eating-places throughout the country, it was prepared in a much tastier fashion than its land of origin.

The Arab inherited portion of the Brazilian cuisine is considerable. Both through the Moors, by way of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Arab immigrants of the 20th century, the kitchen of Brazil has been greatly enriched. Travellers from the Arab world need not pine away for their foods. In this South American country far from home, they will find a kindred cuisine.

It matters not if these foods are Moorish/Portuguese or 20th century Arab contributions or dishes brought by the slaves to Brazil, they are much spicier than those of their homeland.   However, the following Brazilian dishes are still undeniably recognizable as Arab-influenced or almost pure Arab foods.

Hummus – Chickpea Puree

Serves about 8

delightful dish, fast-spreading in Brazil, can also be served as an appetizer or as a tasty snack.

  • 2 cups cooked chickpeas
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 4 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)
  • 4 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • ½ small tomato, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil


Place chickpeas, water, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, salt, cumin and cayenne in a blender, then blend into thick paste. (If a thinner consistency is desired, add more water.) Place in a shallow platter and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Just before serving, decorate with parsley and tomato, then sprinkle with oil and serve.

Kibe – Burghul and Meat Pie

Serves 8 to 10

Kubba is the most important dish in the lives of the people in the Greater Syria area. It can be made in numerous ways with various types of ingredients. However, burghul is always included as a main ingredient. Of these various types of kubbas, meat-kubba is the most popular. It can be eaten raw, made into patties and fried or grilled, or baked in an oven. An appetizing and satisfying dish, it has stood the test of centuries in the Middle Eastern countries.

In Brazil, the same dish, called kibe, has been prepared in the last few decades. However, many more spices have been added. The result is a tastier kubba.

  • 1 1/2 cups medium burghul
  • 2 pounds lean lamb or round beefsteak, cut into pieces
  • 3 cups finely chopped onion
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried mint leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 pound ground beef or lamb
  • 1/2 cup olive oil


  1. Soak burghul in cold water for 15 minutes, then squeeze water out through a strainer and set aside.
  2. Process meat pieces in a food processor until it is finely ground, then transfer to a mixing bowl. Thoroughly combine with burghul, 1 1/2 cups of the onion, 3 teaspoons of the salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of the allspice, cinnamon, cumin, mint and cayenne.
  3. Process a portion at a time in processor until mixture is finished and well ground, then remove from processor and set aside.
  4. Melt butter in a frying pan, then stir-fry pine nuts, ground beef or lamb, remaining onions, salt, pepper and allspice over medium heat for 15 minutes to make a stuffing.
  5. Preheat oven to 350o
  6. Divide the meat and burghul mixture into two portions, then flatten evenly one portion in a well greased 9 inch by 13-inch baking pan. Spread stuffing evenly over the top, then top evenly with the second portion of meat and burghul mixture. With a sharp pointed knife cut into 2 inch squares, then pour oil evenly over top.
  7. Bake for 50 minutes, then place under the broiler for 5 minutes, turning the pan to evenly brown.

NoteKibe is delicious hot or cold. For anyone interested in the exotic, this recipe, without the stuffing, can be served raw, patted down on a flat serving platter and sprinkled with olive oil.

Esfiha/Esfirra – Open Meat Pies

Makes 20 pies

These Brazilian meat pies are descendants of a Syrian/Lebanese type pizza, sfeehah is one of the countless tasty meat, vegetable or sweet, open or filled pies made in the eastern Arab world.   In Brazil, all types of meat dishes, spicier than their Middle Eastern counterparts, are offered by a good number of restaurants in the larger cities.

  • 2 pounds frozen dough, thawed, or an equivalent amount of handmade dough
  • 2 pounds lean lamb or beef, cut into very small pieces or coarsely ground
  • 4 tablespoons margarine or butter
  • 1 small bunch green onions, finely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons very finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 hot pepper, seeded and very finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 medium tomatoes, finely chopped


  1. Form dough into 20 balls, then cover with a damp cloth and allow to rest for 1 1/2 hours.
  2. In the meantime, thoroughly mix remaining ingredients, except half of the chopped tomatoes, then divide into 20 equal portions and set aside.
  3. Roll dough balls into circles about 5-inch in diameter, then fold and pinch edges to form a raised rim. Spread and gently press a portion of mixture inside rim. Continue until all circles are finished.
  4. Place on well greased cookie trays and bake in a 350o F pre­heated oven for 20 minutes, then remove and decorate with remaining tomato pieces. Return to oven and bake for further 15 minutes, then serve piping hot.

Note: in Brazil as in the Middle East stretching the dough over the filling then pinching the dough together to seal closed is another way to prepare the pies.

Tabule Parsley and Burghul Salad

Serves about 8

In the Middle East, taboula is the king of salads and the taste for this dish has reached both North and South America. In Brazil, among those who are familiar with its taste, it is a salad much relished.

  • 1/2 cup medium burghul, soaked for 10 minutes in cold water, then drained by pressing water out through a fine strainer.
  • 2 medium bunches of parsley, thoroughly washed, stemmed, then finely chopped
  • 1 cup finely chopped green onions
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 medium tomatoes, diced into 1/4-inch cubes
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • lettuce leaves


  1. Place burghul and all vegetable ingredients, except lettuce leaves, in a bowl, then thoroughly mix and set aside.
  2. Combine remaining ingredients then pour over burghul and vegetables. Toss and serve on a bed of lettuce leaves.

Dolmades – Stuffed Grape Leaves

Serves about 8

Stuffed grape leaves, a speciality of the Middle East, was brought early in the 20th century by Arab immigrants to Brazil. Numerous Brazilians who know this dish, consider it to be a food par excellence.

  • 1 pound jar grape leaves
  • 1 pound lamb or beef, ground or cut into very small pieces
  • 1 cup white rice, rinsed
  • 2 cups stewed tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • l/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 6 cloves garlic, chopped into large pieces
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice


  1. Thoroughly wash out salt from grape leaves, then set aside.
  2. Prepare stuffing by combining all remaining ingredients, except 1 teaspoon of the salt, garlic and lemon juice.
  3. Place approximately 1 heaping tablespoon stuffing, depending on size, on wide end of each leaf, then roll tightly, making sure to tuck in ends when rolling. Continue until all leaves are rolled.
  4. Place any extra leaves on bottom of a saucepan then arrange rolls over top tightly side by side in alternating layers with garlic spread in between. Sprinkle remaining salt over top, then pour tomato juice over rolls. Cover with inverted plate then add enough water to barely cover plate. Bring to boil, then cover. Cook over medium heat for 1 hour or until rice is done, then serve hot as main course or for snacks.

Cuscuz De Galinha – Chicken Couscous

Serves 8 to 10

Cuscuz is a version of the famous North African dish called couscous. It was introduced into South America by the West African slaves and adapted to Brazilian taste. Today, the basic difference between the two is that, in the Brazilian dish, cornmeal instead of wheat semolina is used and the cornmeal is mixed into the stew.

To prepare this dish, a couscousière is needed. However, if one is not available, a double boiler with a perforated top may be substituted.

  • 4 tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 pound boneless chicken, cut into small pieces
  • 1/2 pound spiced sausage, chopped into small pieces
  • 1 cup chopped green onions
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 medium hot pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
  • 2 cups stewed tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon dried mint
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 1/2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup butter, melted
  • 3 medium sized tomatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 can heart of palms (14.64 oz 410 g), drained and sliced
  • 1/2 cup sliced green olives
  • 4 hard boiled eggs, shelled and sliced
  • 1 cup frozen peas, thawed
  • 2 oranges, peeled and sliced


  1. Heat oil in a saucepan, then sauté chicken and sausage over medium heat for 10 minutes. Stir in onions, garlic, hot pepper, coriander (cilantro), tomatoes, mint, salt, pepper and enough water to cover saucepan ingredients, then cover and bring to boil. Cook over medium heat for 1 hour or until the chicken and sausage are well cooked, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary. Set aside.
  2. In the meantime, in a heavy frying pan, toast the cornmeal over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring constantly, then slowly stir in the 1 cup of water and stir-cook for another 3 minutes, breaking up any lumps. Stir the cornmeal and the butter into the chicken and sausage mixture, then set aside.
  3. Grease top part of a couscousière then decorate the bottom and sides of it with some of the tomatoes, palms, olives and eggs. Divide remaining tomatoes, palms, olives, eggs, and peas into two parts and set aside.
  4. Spread 1/3 of the cornmeal mixture over the bottom decoration, then spread 1 part of the tomatoes, palms, olives, eggs and peas over top. Cover with another 1/3 of cornmeal mixture and top with the remaining tomatoes, palms, olives, eggs and peas. Evenly cover with the remaining cornmeal then tightly cover.
  5. Fill the bottom pot of the couscousière to within 1 inch of the top with water, then bring to boil.   Fit in together top part of couscousière to the bottom. Steam over medium heat for 1 1/2 hours.
  6. Remove cover and invert a serving dish over top, then turn top part of the couscousière on the serving dish. Gently tap the outside of couscousière to release the cuscuz, then decorate with the orange slices and serve.