At my uncle’s house in Fortaleza, Brazil, there were sometimes up to 15 of us at the table. The kitchen door wagged back and forth, the bitter smell of fried cheese wafting in along with the ocean air that cracked the walls and faded the hanging artwork. There were plates of cut-up papaya and mango, both ripe and slightly under ripe, and freshly squeezed guava juice served in tall glass pitchers. I most looked forward to the reddish orange cashew fruit, served whole. (I was warned to tuck a napkin into my shirt to avoid any impossible-to-remove stains.) We cut the oblong shape in slices, moving progressively closer to the nut where it’s sweetest.
Café com leite
Even as a child, I was offered café com leite (“coffee with milk” — in Brazil, the world’s largest producer of coffee, people do not perceive the bean as being especially harmful). The milk was thin; it came in cartons that were stored at room temperature before opening.
Some in my family would choose milk over mango in the morning, refusing to mix the two out of the belief that it would be poisonous. (The northeastern superstition has been traced to when masters told their slaves, who sucked on mangos for sustenance, that drinking milk would make them sick, preventing them from consuming the prized commodity.)
Breakfast culminated with tapiocas, a kind of crêpe made from the same manioc starch that Americans generally use for pudding. The starch is extracted from the cassava root, which was cultivated by indigenous populations in Latin America thousands of years ago and is native to the Amazon region, serving as a versatile staple in many Brazilian dishes, from the powdery farofa that’s served over beans and rice to the unevenly shaped fries known as mandioca frita.
At my uncle’s house, I ate thick tapiocas (you can also eat them thin and crispy, known as beiju) with coconut milk. I let the pasty substance soak in my mouth, my belly heavy but nonetheless eager to be filled more.
While tapioca is typical in the northeast, people eat it across the country, sometimes taking creative license. A friend of mine, who greeted me with tapioca the last time I landed in Rio de Janeiro, stuffed the tapioca with bananas and cinnamon and, after folding the almost gauzy, pearly-white encasing over, drizzled honey on top.
Nowadays I often travel to Curitiba, where my mother’s family lives, one of Brazil’s southernmost cities and geographically and culturally opposite from Fortaleza. In Curitiba I have one cousin, compared to the 30 (of various degrees) on my father’s side, making breakfast a typically tranquil and minimal experience, centered on the most popular morning bread: pão francês (“French bread”), which is oval in shape, light in color, airy on the inside, and nothing like French bread.
The Brazilian love for bread was most likely inherited from the Portuguese, Brazil’s colonizers, and while it doesn’t meet French standards, I nonetheless grow hungry cutting the pão francês along its center, filling the opening with requeijão, a viscous, gooey cheese.
When I’m craving something lighter, I’ll opt for queijo minas, a cool, rubbery, light breakfast cheese that is kept in water and originated in the state of Minas Gerais, where my grandmother was from. Brazilians often pair cheeses with ham, though I’ll roll the slithery cured meat into tubes and eat them on their own.
Broa and goiabada
In the south there’s a love for sweets. While Brazilians have their own appetite for coconut and condensed milk-based treats, the south was also influenced by its German immigrants and their penchant for sugary breads and banana cakes in the mornings. My mother, alleging that she does not take a liking to sweets, eats broa, a dark, dense, pumpernickel-like bread, also of German origin, with jams. I, on the other hand, substitute jam for goiabada, a sticky guava paste.
My experience with these regional breakfasts is probably old fashioned, as today most foods are found all over the country and younger generations expand their palates to yogurt and cereal. But as the years between when I lived in Brazil and the present grow, I seek to eat as I did when I was a child, preserving and returning to old memories. And while I could probably buy most ingredients, like manioc flour or guava paste, in Astoria, Queens, it’s as though the taste would be dulled once the foods left my uncle’s table or the shores of Copacabana. The fruits, on the other hand, I can only carry with me in the form of polished seeds on necklaces or as nuts, as in the case of cashew. I prefer it that way; by confining my Brazilian breakfasts to their familiar place, I can still savor them as a lost taste of home.