The snack that's a history of Brazil

A brief history of pão de queijo

Hello, Snackers. Today on Snack Stack:

Pão de queijo

Credit: Murilo Manzini - Wikipedia Commons

The basics

Little buns made with cassava flour and studded with small pieces of cheese, typically Minas cheese. Crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy in the middle. Gluten free!

Find it in

Brazil, particularly the state of Minas Gerais.

The intel

With its bits of cheese and two-bite volume, pão de queijo is begging to be described as “fun size.” Make ’em by the dozen and serve ’em hot; they’re perfect for sharing, like gougère or popovers. Their backstory is, well, more somber, tracing a line through a familiar tale in the Americas: colonization, enslavement, capitalism.

Long before the Portuguese arrived in the Americas, the indigenous Guaraní people lived in what’s now the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. One of the crops they cultivated was cassava (you might know it as manioc or yuca), which they used in various ways, including grinding it to create a flour that could then be made into bread. The Europeans came in 1500 and, as in more than a few countries in the Americas, they followed their colonization by establishing a new economy built on the labor of enslaved Africans; in this region, more than 500,000 of them were forced to work in the mines that popped up in the gold rush of the 1690s.

With minimal access to other foods, and in a place where wheat couldn’t be grown, the enslaved people used the local cassava plant as a staple crop, and the process of preparing it “left behind a residue of powdery tapioca starch that [they] … would scrape out of the bowls and roll into small balls of dough before baking.”

In the late 1800s, after Brazil abolished slavery, the Minas Gerais region became a center of the nation’s dairy industry, and the Afro-Brazilian residents had greater access to eggs, milk, and the semi-soft Minas cheese, which they started adding to the cassava-flour rolls—the last step in the origin of pão de queijo.

These days, pão de queijo is popular enough to be the featured dish of a fast-food chain, Casa do Pão de Queijo, which was established in 1967 and now has more than a thousand outlets around Brazil. If you happen to be a fan of the Brazilian soap opera Amor à Vida, you may have seen some prominent product placement by Casa do Pão de Queijo (this fact gets its own mention in the company’s twelve-point corporate history).

I can’t find a clip from the soap opera, but here’s a Brazilian grandma showing you how to make pão de queijo:

Get it here

Family gatherings, grocery stores, bakeries, and food stands around Brazil, including Casa do Pão de Queijo, which sells sandwiches, coffee, and pastries alongside the eponymous cheese bread.

Pair it with

Coffee or the Best Chocolate Cake in the World (another brand owned by Casa do Pão de Queijo’s parent company).

Will you like it? 

Probably!

Read more

The Guardian: “Pão de queijo is the history of Brazil in a moreish cheese snack”

Corporate history of Casa do Pão de Queijo

Want another snack?

Don’t forget to check out the pantry (er, archives) and see what you’ve missed—and, if you’re not a paid subscriber, to see what you’re missing! Recent posts include a Dutch cow udder snack (with a cameo by a charismatic poet), a cotton candy-filled crepe from Thailand (with a seriously captivating “how it’s made” video), and a pollen candy from Iraq’s marshlands (with bonus notes on the region’s floating houses made of reeds).

Happy snacking!