Saturday, July 9, 2011

Cuscuz - Brazilian interpretation(s) of couscous

I finally made some time to add another recipe to this blog. I’m sorry for being away for so long, but life has been hectic - cooking classes, academic research, cookbook translation review and now I became a regular contributor to a Brazilian cooking magazine (Sabores do Interior and to a blog about Brazilian food culture hosted by Mapa da Cachaça (, a website about the emblematic Brazilian hard liquor used to make caipirinha.

The term Cuscuz, also spelled cuscus and cuzcuz in Portuguese, refers to several preparations in different regions of the country. The origin of the plate is certainly the Middle Eastern couscous, but once it was introduced to the new tropical culture, several versions using local ingredients began to develop.

Cuscuz can be a plain, steamed, cake-like cereal made with flocos de milho pré-cozidos (yellow, precooked corn meal - “Milharina”, by Quaker, is a very well known brand). Usually served for breakfast, it’s made in the cuscuzeira, or cuscuzeiro (see picture), a steaming pan that has a perforated metal disc with a handle that seats on top of simmering water where you place the corn meal, previously moistened with salt water. This preparation is sometimes called cuscuz nordestino, especially by people that are not from nordeste, that is, the Northeast region of Brazil. It can be served with manteiga de garrafa (a type of clarified butter), queijo coalho (typical cheese from Northeast region), coconut milk, etc.

Then, there’s the cuscuz de tapioca, a sweet, flan-like version of the dish made with manioc/yucca tapioca pearls, coconut and condensed milk - I’ve never tried this one, but the pictures I saw are mouthwatering! And there is the cuscuz paulista (paulista means from São Paulo state), which is also traditionally steamed, but it is a savory dish that uses both farinha de milho (see picture) and farinha de mandioca (manioc / yucca flour).

The recipe I am going to post today is a simplified, more Minas-Gerais-style version of the later. A flavorful broth made with sautéed onion, garlic, tomatoes and your choice of shredded chicken, sardines, other fish and shrimp or vegetables is thickened with farinha de milho. It is then poured into a mold, usually a tube pan decorated with sliced boiled eggs, tomato and other vegetables such as hearts of palm and green peas. Once cooled and unmolded, it looks pretty, on top of being a complete, delicious meal.

Cuscuz de frango com farinha de milho 
(Chicken Brazilian Couscous)

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped (1/2 - 3/4 cup)
2-3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 Tbsp tomato paste
3-4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 cups chicken stock or water, or a mix of both
1 chicken breast (approx. 8 oz), cooked and shredded (see the recipe for Coxinha filling)
1/2 cup corn kernels, frozen or canned (drained)
1/2 cup green peas, frozen or canned (drained)
1/2 cup hearts of palm, drained and chopped
1/2 cup chopped parsley and scallions or chives
6 oz. (aprox.) farinha de milho (flaked corn meal - see picture)

To garnish:
2 hard boiled eggs, sliced
1 ripe tomato, thinly sliced
sliced hearts of palm
sprigs of parsley
olives or green peas
lettuce leaves

1. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Sauté onion until translucent. Add garlic and sauté until both are light golden brown. Add tomato paste and sauté for another minute, stirring constantly. Add chopped tomato and cook, on high heat, for five to ten minutes, stirring every now and then, until tomato starts to melt and release its juices.
2. Stir in stock, shredded chicken, corn, peas, and hearts of palm. Season with salt, black pepper and/or Brazilian preserved chili oil. It should be a little over-seasoned, because you’re going to add the farinha de milho later. Bring to a boil.
3. Meanwhile, lightly oil a tube mold and decorate with sliced boiled eggs, tomato, green olives, hearts of palm slices, peas and parsley sprigs, or any other ingredient you’re using to make the cuscuz or that goes well with the chosen ingredients (such as shrimps and sardine fillets, etc.).
4. Once the liquid is boiling and all flavors are all well combined, lower the heat and slowly add the farinha de milho, stirring constantly with a long handled wooden spoon. Watch out for the bubbles, as cuscuz spatters like polenta - use protective gloves to stir it until the flour is well blended with liquid and the mixture gets thick (it should be thicker than polenta). Then, cook for another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring every now and then, until mixture is creamy and thoroughly cooked. Remove from heat, add chopped herbs and mix well to combine.
5. Adjust seasoning and pour the mixture immediately onto prepared mold, being careful not to displace the decoration. Hit the bottom of the pan lightly against the counter to eliminate air bubbles and smooth the surface with a spatula. Set aside and let cool almost to room temperature before unmolding.
6. To serve, give the mold a brisk shake, place a platter on top and turn upside down. Decorate all around it with lettuce leaves.

- Substitute 2 cans of sardines (drained), or 2 cans of tuna (drained), or 1 cup chopped shrimp and/or white fish fillets for the shredded chicken. Use water or fish stock instead. Garnish the mold accordingly.
- Make a vegetarian version by substituting extra corn, green peas, tomato, shredded carrots, shredded zucchini, sliced green beans, chopped green olives, and/or hearts of palm for the chicken.


  1. Oi Elisa! When I was in Japan all my guests just loved cuscuz!!! It was my duty in all the parties...hehehe... Beijoca! Fernanda

  2. What a wonderful blog, Elisa! Wish I had found it earlier. Will read it faithfully from now on. Thanks!

  3. Yay! One of my favorite Brazilian chicken dish. Looks yummy and I'm now drooling on it. :p

  4. Nada como a boa cozinha brasileira! Gostei de seu blog Elisa, por isso, tornei-me mais um seguidor. Aproveito para lhe convidar a visitar meu blog e conhecer um pouco do meu trabalho.
    Beijo....e bom apetite!


    1. Nossa, Luiz, será que não respondi sua mensagem! Me desculpe!!! Entrei no seu blog e é muito bonito - lindas fotos!
      Obrigada por se tornar um seguidor. Escrevo pouco, mas com amor! :o)

  5. Looks delicious! I will try it soon. I need to find a cuscuzeira in the NJ/Ny area. Any ideas of a store or website where I may find one?

    1. Hi Ineida! Thanks for your comments :o)
      Unfortunately, I don't know where you can buy a cuscuzeira here in the U.S... Maybe online? But you can make any kind of steamed cuscuz like this: pile the moistened mixture or "milharina" at the center of a clean kitchen towel. Cover with an inverted plate. Tie the ends of the towel under the plate. Carefully place the plate, with the covered cuscuz facing down, on a pan with a little boiling water, as if it was a cover (do not let the water touch the cuscuz). Cook for about 20 minutes, or until it is soft and fluffy!

  6. Hi Elisa! I live in dallas too, but I used to live in Recife before coming here and I miss so much this kind of food. Can you tell me where to cuscuz or farinha para facer tapioca?

    1. Hi! Thank you for your comments!
      To make the "cuscuz nordestino", in the cuscuzeira, you can use "precooked cornmeal", available at any supermarket. For tapioca, the most similar is tapioca / manioc starch (= polvilho). Moisten it with water and then pass through a sieve onto a hot skillet. When the sides start to roll up, turn it to cook the other side, and fill with cheese, or coconut, etc.

  7. Elisa, I have to thank you for translating Brazilian recipes into English! And I don't mean it as "literally" translating, but making it possible for Brazilians living in the US to prepare these wonderful delicacies. I used to make it while living in Brazil, but I used what in the US is known as "corn meal." The Bobó de Camarão brought memories of a favorite dish my mother sometimes prepared for us. If you don't mind, I have a couple of small contributions to your text. Ad a hyphen to "over seasoned"; it should read "over-seasoned." And you should be careful not to displace the decoration in the bottom of the pan; misplacing it would be really a catastrophe--if you grasp my meaning... ;-)

    1. Thank you so much for the message, and for the contributions! I'm not a native speaker of English - any corrections will always be more than welcome!
      Corn meal works fine especially for the "cuscuz nordestino", but I haven't tried to use it instead of "farinha de milho". But I will, because good "farinha de milho" is very hard to come by here in the U.S.

    2. How interesting... I always thought American corn meal was just like farinha de milho from Brazil. (I don't mean fubá de milho.) I remember my grandmother making bolo de milho (which I did learn from her cooking books) and the flour looked exactly the same; I actually made her recipe here and it worked. But I am far from an expert in culinary matters. Your English is excellent, by the way. (Portuguese is my mother tongue, not English; I was just born here from Brazilian parents.)

    3. I know there is a regional difference in Brazil - farinha de milho, in Minas Gerais, is very coarse and flaky, as shown in the picture above. Fubá can be "mimoso" (very fine) or "grosso". As for Milharina(r) or flocos de milho pré-cozidos (preecooked corn meal), we use them for cakes, mingaus and to make the cuscuz nordestino (not the cuscuz paulista).

    4. Let's see if I understand--please, cope with my ignorance... Do you employ the same corn flour for Cuzcuz to make polenta? (While in Brazil, where, among other cities/states, I lived in Porto Alegre, then Gramado, I learned to make Cuzcuz with the same flour we use for polenta...)

    5. Hi! Did you see the picture in the introductory text? That's what we call "farinha de milho" in MInas Gerais. It is not the same thing we use to make polenta - we call that "fubá", and it looks like a meal/flour. Here's another explanation about what's farinha de milho:

  8. Jeez, I think we have very different ways of calling things in Brazil, Elisa! Fubá for us (my mother and grandmother, although both from Rio Grande in RS both lived in Salvador, Bahia) is the very fine flour and they used it for broinhas... I was talking with a friend of mine from São Paulo, who lives now in the same city here in the US, and we concluded I should try with regular corn-meal, which is similar to what I used in Brazil. I'll let you know the result. Thanks so much for your patience and much success!

  9. I just love to cook every day of the week and to try new dishes. This looks beautiful and tasty, and I appreciate the flexibility of the recipe! But, I have never seen farinha de milho--flaked corn meal--in any of the markets in Baltimore. I will look some more, but what should I use in the meantime? Fine/course cornmeal? Masa with cornmeal?
    Thank you, Janet

    1. Hi Janet!
      Thanks for your comments. The best bet, I think, would be precooked corn grits (I think it's the same thing as masarepa, but I'm not sure!). But you will have to adjust the quantity...
      You can buy "farinha de milho" from online stores.
      Let me know how it came out, if you decide to make it with precooked corn grits!