When you’re born in a city called Belo Horizonte, or “beautiful horizon,” it’s likely that you have a bit of the artistic in you. Sunsets in this south-eastern Brazilian city are legendary- crimson slashes of red set against lush green mountains. Chef Mario Cassini remembers the landscape of his home town as fondly as he recalls the mouth-watering aromas emanating from the kitchen of his extended family’s home.
Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais (meaning general mine) is known throughout Brazil for its flavourful cuisine. Just as the state owes its name to the rich reserve of minerals such as gold, diamonds and quartz, the area’s culinary traditions owes its diversity in large part to the miners who arrived there in the eighteenth century. It’s said that the culinary secrets that make the food there so wonderful, are quietly passed down from generation to generation, like a piece of heirloom jewellery containing a diamond from the surrounding mountains. For Mario, that gift was passed down to him from the skilled hands of his Aunt Maria and Grandfather Bernadino.
“Sometimes I’d be in bed and I could smell that my aunt was cooking next door. I used to get up and go watch her cook. She’d blend beans for soup or the dishes she’d make- and she’d hold me up to see the beans in the blender pureeing,” recalls Mario. His grandfather was Portuguese, and made a cod fish dish in the traditional style of the Mediterranean- with layers of potato, fish, onions and pepper known as Bacalaho Gomes da Sa. “I was about four years old,” says Mario “and I remember my grandfather would get a whole salted cod, cook it- and then I’d help de-bone it. We’d peel the skin off the cod and take our time taking out the bones. It was a lot of fun for a kid.”
Culinary and Cultural Imprints
The cultural and culinary imprints left behind by Portuguese colonials, African slaves, the country’s indigenous peoples and the many others who arrived later, are what makes Brazilian food so unique. Take for example the Brazilian party staple- pasteis. A cross between a Chinese spring roll and an Indian Samosa, the pasteis’ crust resembles that of a spring roll, and the fillings are samosa-like. But that’s where the similarities end because they use local ingredients such as cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane rum) in the dough and hearts of palm in the filling.
When Mario arrived in Canada at the age of 24, he was a young man in search of opportunity. “I wanted to see how the other side of the world lived- to see the lifestyle first hand for myself. I was frustrated with Brazil, with the country’s instability. I was young and had no dreams. I lacked hope and vision.” says Mario. “I was working for the equivalent of the TTC in Brazil on traffic control, routes, trouble-shooting and customer service. We’d go somewhere and need a police escort to get out- because the people in a neighbourhood weren’t happy about a strike or the service. I knew I had to go. Once I got here I thought, ‘you know what? This is it!’” recalls Mario.
Feijoada for New Friends
Once here, he’d cook up his legendary feijoada– braised meat and black bean stew for his new Canadian friends to rave reviews, which got him thinking about going to cooking school. He went back to Brazil to apply for his landed immigrant papers and three and a half years later returned as an immigrant, enrolling in the culinary program at George Brown College in Toronto. “I was 28 years old when I went to George Brown. I knew I had to do something. I worked in construction here in Canada and I hated it. The conditions, the people- it just wasn’t for me,” says Mario.
Many of Mario’s friends and family advised him against a culinary career, some even tried to get him to change his mind. “Yes, it’s a hot, dirty place sometimes. You deal with big egos, and the pressure to deliver is very real,” admits Mario, “but I’ve survived so far!” Ever since he was a little boy, even through adolescence, Mario’s survival skills led him to the kitchen. Mario always knew that given the opportunity, he would own his own restaurant showcasing the food of his native land and share that with Canadians. Three years ago, the opportunity presented itself in the form of Toronto’s Caju restaurant. He’s proud and passionate about Brazilian cooking, the complexity associated with building the right balance of flavours and the different histories behind each dish.
Snack ThiefsOne the stories Mario most fondly remembers related to a particular dish takes him back to his childhood. At every family gathering, big bowls brimming with freshly fried pasteis would be prepared for the guests to nibble on with cocktails. Mario recalls grating the cheese and stretching out the dough in preparation of one his favourite party foods. His mum would stash the heaping bowls out of the way until everyone arrived, but Mario and one of his brothers had different plans. While Mario distracted his mother, his brother would snag some pasteis from their resting place without anyone knowing. Later on, the accomplices would meet to divvy up the loot, gleefully snacking on their forbidden fruits. Mario makes some of his home state’s dishes with flair and offers these three flavourful recipes for your next party or gathering. And best of all- with Mario’s recipes in hand- you can make enough to thrill your guests – and keep your own secret stash!