SAO PAULO, Brazil (Aug. 11)
The pleasant smell drifted not heavenward but into the O Shil Beit Chabad Itaim Synagogue, distracting the faithful from their prayers. Next door, the Bolinha restaurant was gearing up for its usual barrage of patrons on Saturday, when Brazilians traditionally partake of their national dish, a black bean stew called feijoada. Unfortunately for the davening Jews, the recipe for feijoada includes pork chops, pork trotters, pork tails, pork ears, pork sausage and bacon.
According to some historians, feijoada was concocted by Brazilian slaves who transformed scraps from the Big House into a slave-quarters delicacy.
But the owners of Bolinha, which is nationally famous for its feijoada, cite scholarly sources to make the case that the dish is really a Brazilian variation of European fare like the Spanish cassoulet and the Portuguese caldeirada.
Whatever its origin, feijoada stands as an important symbol of Brazilian heritage. That creates “tension between Jewish and Brazilian expressions of identity,” according to the anthropologist Misha Klein of the University of Oklahoma.
“Brazilians with a strong Jewish identity, including some who are somewhat religiously observant,” will indulge in the occasional feijoada, although it’s not kosher, Klein said.
But not the worshipers at O Shil, no matter how tantalizing the scent.
“As a counterbalance, we started cooking up cholent,” Rabbi Yossi Schildraut said, referring to the slow-cooked stew of meat, beans and potatoes traditionally served on the Sabbath.
Culinary habits aside, Schildraut and Bolinha co-owner Jose Orlando Paulillo maintained a good-neighbor policy.
“You’ll break down and have my feijoada,” Paulillo joked.
“Come over for our ‘feijoada,’ ” retorted Schildraut, referring to cholent.
Having reached a standoff, the rabbi threw down the gauntlet: “Make a kosher feijoada,” he dared Paulillo.
The restaurateur agreed, launching an eight-month quest for the perfect glatt-kosher feijoada.
Schildraut enlisted Sergio Eduardo Geigner of the catering firm Kosher Eventos to introduce Paulillo to kosher butchers. Geigner contributed years of experience of making just about anything under the Brazilian sun kosher, notably the West African-influenced cuisine of Bahia state, which is heavy on fish and seafood and features names like acaraje, vatapa and moqueca.
His motto: “If I can kasher something, I want to eat it.”
Paulillo, his cooks and partners jumped headlong into a stew of trial and error.
“When the traditional cut was from the stomach of the pig, we tried something from the stomach of the cow,” Geigner said. Paulillo and his head cook worked the day shift; Jose Mario Ribeiro de Souza, known around the kitchen as Mauro, took over at night.
“It was a challenge for” Paulillo, recalled Mauro, who is only 37 but has been working at Bolinha for 23 years. “They left stuff for me at night to evaluate for taste, cooking time, tenderness and seasoning. We tried several cuts of meat.”
His verdict on the kosher version: “It’s a little different. The taste of smoked meat comes through more, but it’s good. Sincerely, I really like it.”
The inaugural meal of kosher feijoada took place during Chanukah 2002 and was a reunion of sorts.
“There were lots of people there who used to eat pork,” Schildraut said of his congregants. Paulillo “kept recognizing former customers.”
Both sides claimed victory.
“We even got the Orthodox to eat feijoada,” said a beaming Paulo Affonso Paulillo, Jose Orlando Paulillo’s brother and a Bolinha co-owner.
Last Chanukah, the synagogue held its holiday feijoada feast at Bolinha.
“We kashered part of his kitchen — the pinnacle of pork!” Schildraut beamed.
Now Mauro troops over to the synagogue’s kitchen once a month to fix up a batch of 200 to 300 kosher feijoadas, enough to last shul-goers for a month. They’re not served at the restaurant but instead are frozen and distributed by Bolinha’s delivery service, through neighborhood shops, at delicatessens in Jewish neighborhoods and through the moderately upscale Pao de Acucar supermarket chain.
If given advance notice, Bolinha will heat up a kosher feijoada to be served in the restaurant. The waiter warns patrons that side dishes such as rice and collard greens aren’t kosher, but most people who order the kosher feijoada don’t mind — because they’re not Jewish.
“We receive many Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists,” Paulo Affonso Paulillo said.