There’s no such thing as a National Dish. Most countries have a National Bird, a National Symbol and a National Anthem, all establish by act of law, but in most regions of the globe legislators have other things on their minds than arguing about what dish best represents their national spirit. That’s not to say that there’s no such thing as a small-case national dish – one that almost everyone inside a country holds dear, and one that foreigners associate with that country. Think Greece and moussaka, or India and curry. In that sense, few would deny that Brazil’s national dish is the party meal, centered on black beans and a number of pork products, called feijoada. Generally served at mid-day to mid-afternoon on a weekend or holiday, accompanied by lots of caipirinhas to drink, feijoada makes the party.
In a recent article in the food section of the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, writer Dias Lopes makes a strong case for a dish from Rio de Janeiro called picadinho to be Brazil’s national-dish-runner-up. Picadinho is one of the few Brazilian dishes that are encountered everywhere in the country, as culinary and gastronomic traditions are strongly regional in this huge half-continent, and not many dishes cross regional boundaries. Even though it’s enjoyed throughout Brazil, picadinho still carries a strong association with Rio de Janeiro, for it was there at the end of the 19th Century, in the bohemian district of Lapa, that the various components of a plate of picadinho first came together and the dish was baptized “little chopped thing”, which is how the Portuguese name would be translated into English.
So what exactly is picadinho? Certainly, nothing very fancy. If one was to categorize it at all, it would have to go in the category of “blue-plate specials.” It’s not one food or dish; it’s a combination of foods ON a dish. Some of these foods are optional, but picadinho must have hand-chopped beef (not ground beef), seasoned and cooked in a brown sauce, rice, sautéed kale, boiled potatoes, and a poached or fried egg. Optionally, a fried banana or plantain and seasoned manioc flour can be added.
Just as feijoada is a dish for mid-day, picadinho is a dish to eat late at night – very late at night. In Rio’s heyday in the 30s, 40s and 50s, supper clubs, bars and late night restaurants served picadinho from midnight on. It’s a stick-in-your-ribs plate, and it serves the same excess-alcohol-sponging purpose as does a 3 a.m. breakfast in a truck stop, or enchiladas from a Mexican food-truck. Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s why the dish is so well loved in Brazil – it’s associated with good friends and good times. Party the night away in a club or bar, stop afterwards for a plate of picadinho then head home to sleep it all off, just as the tropical sun is coming up. That’s the whole picadinho experience, kit and caboodle, or as they say herein Brazil “É tudo mesmo!”