There’s nothing remarkable about the kibbeh that Marco Antônio sells from his pushcart – the same small, fried balls of meat, bulgur and onion found all over menus in Lebanon. Except, perhaps, that his pushcart, ‘O arabe do Pepê’, is actually a plastic camel, which he rides up and down Rio de Janeiro’s Barra da Tijuca beach each day.
His business’ tropical location is not out of the ordinary either, however. In a country with the world’s largest Arab diaspora, Middle Eastern street food vendors can be found all over Brazil – though, unlike Antônio and his red-chequered keffiyeh and canary yellow kandoura, most, due to the community’s deep integration, have become as indistinguishable as the acarajé and other stalls of quitutes (comfort food) they intersperse.
‘I think it’s a sort of nostalgia,’ ponders Lebanese chef Anissa Helou, who participates in São Paulo’s many food festivals, remarking on the at once noticeable and yet otherwise workaday prevalence of Arabic food in Brazil. ‘They may have lost their Arabic language, but they have not lost their love of the food,’ she says.
Perhaps the most illustrative, and delicious, form that this nostalgia takes is the ‘beirute’ sandwich – the roast beef, tomato and cheese club that’s a nationwide favourite in Brazil.
The creators of the beirute – two Syrian brothers, Jorge and Fauze Farah – used Levantine bread and a sprinkle of zaatar in the sandwich’s original appearance at São Paulo’s Dunga diner in the 1950s. Today, however, the beirute is so popular that it’s found throughout Brazil’s fast food restaurants.
A beirute and a Coca Cola will set you back 16.80 Brazilian reals in Habib’s. Already the largest, homegrown Brazilian fast food chain, Habib’s menu, featuring regional staples like tabbouleh, kibbeh and esfiha, make it the largest Middle Eastern food chain in the world.
‘The esfiha is definitely our signature item,’ says Paula Oliveira, a server at a Habib’s branch in São Paulo’s Vila Mariana neighbourhood. True – Habib’s esfihas have become so popular that, says Jorge Pretz, Grupo Habib’s marketing director, Habib’s has sold ‘a record 7.6 billion Bib’sfihas along its trajectory – more than one unit per inhabitant on the planet.’
Since its founding in 1988 on São Paulo’s Rua Cerro Corá, Habib’s has since grown to over 450 branches across the country. ‘Habib’s was a success early on. When it first opened, there were waiting lines at the door for over 40 days,’ says Pretz.
Despite its popularity among Brazil’s Arab community, Habib’s founder, Alberto Saraiva, was born in Portugal with no family ties to the Arab world. ‘Saraiva bought a snack bar in São Paulo’s southern zone,’ says Pretz, ‘when a man appeared at his door asking for a job.’
The man was Paulo Abud, ‘the greatest chef on Rua 25 de Março – an important central area in São Paulo with large Arab influence.’ ‘He knew all about esfiha, kibbeh, hummus, dry quark and other dishes – it was from Abud that Saraiva learned the secrets of Arab cuisine.’
‘I was interested to see what Lebanese food was like there,’ says Helou of her visits to São Paulo, during which she visits extended family. ‘I went to several restaurants, though I didn’t go to Habib’s – everyone told me it’s really bad.’
‘What was interesting, though,’ she says, ‘is that a lot of the Lebanese people I met there spoke with the regional accent of their village, and cooked dishes that you don’t really find in restaurants in Lebanon anymore.’
Most of the émigrés, she noted, had left small villages in their native country and, though their traditional home cooking and recipes may have long fallen out of fashion or collective memory in Lebanon, they had passed down through Brazilian generations and, subsequently, were still found in restaurants there.
‘The Lebanese food there is different from what I know as Lebanese food,’ she says. ‘Because of the distance, a lot of the émigrés don’t often go back to Lebanon – they kind of adapt their cooking to the country. Not to the point of change,’ she says, ‘it’s just a little bit less elegant, a little bit less sophisticated.’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.
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