It's a sunny Sunday afternoon in January and I'm sitting in a corner cafe listening to the chatter of Brazilian Portuguese. Groups of diners attempt to make themselves heard over the forró music playing from a set of speakers set up on a nearby trestle table. The Brazil flag hangs in the corner and from the open door of the kitchen comes the clatter of pots and pans. The chefs are cooking crisp, chewy tapioca pancakes.
This could be any January weekend in Rio, were it not for the fact that the Brazilians gathered here are wrapped up in heavy coats, beanie hats, and thick scarves, and hunkered down over steaming mugs of cinnamon-infused milk, rather than kicking back in shorts and rubber-soled flip flops to enjoy a beer served estupidamente gelada (stupidly cold).
This is mid-winter in Lisbon, not high-summer in the tropics, and the sun that bounces off the steep streets I've climbed to get here barely raises the temperature above five degrees. Inside, it's chillier still.
I'm at the Casa do Brasil—a social hub for the many Brazilian immigrants living in the Portuguese capital—and today the Brazucas (an affectionate slang term for Brazilians) have gathered in their droves to "kill a few saudades."
While that may sound like an alarmingly violent way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it's nothing of the sort. The Portuguese word "saudade" is famously hard to translate, but it refers to a kind of bittersweet longing for something, someplace, or someone no longer present. To matar (kill) saudades is to give yourself a fix of whatever it is you're missing.
Today, the Brazilian crowds have come to kill saudades for tapioca. Not the gloopy, sweet dessert doled out to British school children in decades past, but a crisp pancake made from processed cassava flour, whose neutral taste makes it the perfect foil for both sweet and savoury fillings. It's been a staple foodstuff in Brazil since Colonial times, when the Portuguese discovered that the root vegetables cooked up by native Tupi Guarani Indians could be used to make a bread substitute.
Served from street carts across Brazil, standard savoury fillings in tapioca pancakes are carne de sol (shredded sun dried beef), grated cheese, and chicken with catupiry (a type of of soft, spreadable cheese.) Popular sweet versions include Nutella with banana or grated fresh coconut. Straddling the sweet/savoury divide is the the Romeu e Julieta, salty white cheese with sweet guava jelly.
Since October 2016, northeastern Brazilians Dalva Lucena and Viviane Souza have been attracting big crowds to their Sunday socials known as Tardes com Tapioca—"afternoons with tapioca." Under the banner "Senhora Tapioca," the pair have found a growing popularity for their venture, and will soon be taking their tapioca on the road with a food truck.
"In my first week in Portugal, I started to feel saudades for tapioca at breakfast," says Souza, who came to Portugal in 2015 to study for her doctorate. "Nobody was selling tapioca in Lisbon. I tried to find the prepared flour, but it was difficult. When Dalva was looking for a idea to sell at an event Casa do Brasil was hosting, I suggested tapioca, and it was a huge hit. Brazilians were excited to find tapioca in Lisbon and the Portuguese, as well as the tourists, were really curious to try it."
Brazilians have long formed a substantial part of the ethnic mix in Lisbon, and their ranks are steadily swelling as political, financial, and social problems continue to rock Brazil.
But it's never long before the saudades kick in, whether for Brazil's year-round balmy heat or the comfort foods of home. The Brazilian connection is increasingly evident on Lisbon's culinary scene—caipirinha cocktails and açaí berries crushed with ice and sugar to create a kind of energy-boosting sorbet are cropping up at hipster hotspots across the city. And now tapioca is joining the party.
While the offerings at the Casa do Brasil have a pleasingly grassroots feel, the ongoing trend for gluten-free food means tapioca is now cropping up as a chic lunch option for body conscious Lisboetas. A series of "gourmet tapioca" openings in recent months have led Time Out Lisboa to denote it as a "Brazilian Fever."
Rui Outeiro is a Portuguese food enthusiast who cottoned on to tapioca's potential when he spent four years working in Brazil. His Tacos & Tapioca food cart is a regular at street food events across Lisbon.
"In 2016, some companies started importing tapioca to Portugal, as it became a trend among gym-goers and people on gluten-free diets," he explains. "We have huge numbers of Brazilians living in Portugal—and Lisbon in particular, as well as tens of thousands of Brazilian tourists, and many Portuguese travel to Brazil, so they're familiar with traditional foods such as tapioca."
Preparing the tapioca flour from scratch is a time-consuming process that involves adding water to the cassava and passing it through a giant sieve, before drying it out to extract the starchy gum. It's easily available as a pre-prepared flour in Brazil, but remains hard to come by in Lisbon. Once the flour is ready, making a tapioca pancake is simple: throw a couple of spoonfuls onto a hot pan (no oil or water) and it magically forms itself into a crepe.
Souza tells me she's adapted the basic version to encourage those on a health kick.
"As well as the typical Northeastern fillings such as fresh coconut or cheese, we've added a 'fitness' line, which includes granola, honey, and banana, and a vegan option with chia seeds, tofu, and grated carrots," she explains.
I decide to visit the two sides of the health spectrum by ordering a vegan tapioca with a chocolate one for pudding.
The tapioca pancakes arrive and while the chia tossed into the mix no doubt gives the vegan version a nutritional boost, I find myself wishing I'd adopted the Brazilian habit of carrying a toothbrush and floss around with me, as I spend the rest of the afternoon self-consciously sucking seeds out of my teeth.
The chocolate pancake is as delicious as I remember—a super-thick layer of melted Nutella sandwiched between the crunchy, snowy-white pancake. It's just like being back in Brazil, until the warming effects of the mulled wine wear off and I have to wrap my big old European coat and scarf around me again.