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Confectionery in The Northeast of Brazil

Portuguese colonizers introduced confectionary in Brazil. The confectionary tradition in Portugal was already abundant in the 15th century, still using honey, which was slowly and gradually replaced by sugar.

Confectionery in The Northeast of Brazil

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 11/10/2013

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

The heritage obtained from the Portuguese and specially the moors for confectionary in the sugar mills of Brazil wasn’t small or unimportant. The sweets made by the nuns were one of the most fascinating things of the old Portuguese civilization, that, before that, learned with the moors how to manufacture sugar and produce honey, sweets and cakes.
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The Northeast of Brazil, for its reputation of four hundred years of its sugar manufacturing sub-region, not only regionally, but throughout the whole country, is presented as the Brazilian area of sugar, by excellence. Not only sugar: it is also the area, by excellence, of aristocratic cakes, fine sweets, noble desserts as much as – ironically – the street sweets and cakes, the sweets and treats sold in trays, the rapadura (block of raw brown sugar) sold in rustic fairs that poor people like to eat with flour, gathering dessert, feeding and sustenance. [...]

Without sugar – whether the refined or unrefined, raw or the one used for rapadura – you can’t understand the man from the Northeast.[...]

Gilberto Freyre, Açúcar (1987, p. 52; 17; 37).

The sweet flavors, apparently comes from the East. It was spread by the moors all over the world. Before sugar processed from sugar cane, the Arabs left in Portugal the heritage of honey-based sweets, that can be considered the oldest intrinsically sweet substance ever known.

Africans and natives chewed on honeycombs from beehives with everything on it: wax, bees and honey. Because they didn’t know sugar, they didn’t make sweets. 

Portuguese colonizers introduced confectionary in Brazil. The confectionary tradition in Portugal was already abundant in the 15th century, still using honey, which was slowly and gradually replaced by sugar.

There are records of travelers on the confectionary of Brazil since 1597, such as the testimonial of Gabriel Soares de Souza in his descriptive Treaty about Brazil, in which he states that, by using sugar, women make a thousand delicacies.

The tradition of Portuguese cakes and sweets rooted immediately and deeply in the country. In Portuguese cuisine, the confectionary includes basically wheat flour, eggs, cow’s milk, butter and spices. When it came to Brazil, it mixed and acclimatized with native ingredients, such as coconut milk and manioc flour.

In the beginning of colonial Brazil, fresh native fruit were rarely served in natura. Because they feared digestive problems, the Portuguese transformed them into compotes or crystallized them. When ice came to Brazil, in 1834 and 1838 in Pernambuco, Brazilian fruit were transformed in sweets, jams, comfits and puddings, but also in ice cream and sherbet.

The first Brazilian dessert to become part of culture was sugar mill honey with manioc flour, consumed – in the Salvador and Nossa Senhora da Ajuda sugar mills, located in Olinda, Pernambuco – at the time of Duarte Coelho and Jerônimo de Albuquerque (MOTA, 1968, p. 19).

Baba de moça was the favorite sweet between nobles in the Second Empire. But pé de moleque – not very appreciated by the elite of the time – was popular between the less fortunate classes. Created in Brazil, its recipe was composed by ingredients that were cheap and accessible to slaves, such as manioc dough, raw sugar or rapadura, chestnuts or peanuts.

Brazilian confectionary, specially from the Northeast, owes a lot to housewives, the black women in the kitchens and the black confectioner men. Its origin is patriarchal and its preparation was taken very seriously by the family in the farm houses and two-story houses in Northeast. The female slaves known to be great confectioners were “lent” to parties in sugar mills, villages and farms.

The convent confectionary, tradition also brought from Portugal, reach its golden age in all of the Kingdom starting with D. Pedro II. The confectioner nuns were considered masters in manual workmanships, for the patience and delicacy when making the sweets. When they arrived to Brazil, the beijos, sequilhos and cookies made in convents went through changes, with the inclusion of ingredients such as coconut milk and manioc gum.

The cocada, sold in fairs and street trays, is considered a popular sweet. Coconut sweet, on the other hand, is considered fine and aristocratic.

According to the Recife newspaper A Marmota Pernambucana, published in 1850:

Cocada is a sweet of the people, it is a patriotic and democratic sweet, the dessert of poor people and, in addition, it has the peculiarity of bringing the same pleasure as drinking a good glass of fresh water [...] (CASCUDO, 2004, p. 614).

Besides cocada, several types of popular confectionary are common in the Northeast, especially in small towns; they are sold in trays, fairs, church courtyards, train stations: sweet bread, bolo de bacia (a kind of cupcake), gum cake, tareco (a type of hard cookie), cabano cake, corn cake, pé de moleque, rice pudding (with coconut milk), alfenim (sugar and almond oil dough), confectioned cashew nut, “Japanese sweet” or “quebra-queixo” – made with sugar, coconut and other ingredients (guava, banana, chestnuts, peanuts), which defines its flavor.

Between sweets, jams, and fruit compotes, the goiabada (guava jam), guava in syrup, cattley guava jam, jack fruit sweet, cashews in syrup, slices bananas in syrup, mashed bananas sweets, green coconut sweet, ripe coconut sweet or sabongo stand out.

The traditional desserts that highlight are cartola, manioc cake, wet tapioca (with coconut milk), pé de moleque, rice pudding, bolo de rolo,  cake type Souza Leão , cheese type coalho with sugar mill honey.

There are still a series of semisweet desserts, some more common during the June celebrations, such as canjica (a type of green corn pudding), oven canjica, mungunzá (known as canjica by the people from the South and Southeast), pamonha and sweet angu – made with corn flour (cornmeal), a type of sweet polenta.

The Portuguese bolo de noiva is made of white dough and varied fillings and, that way, it spread all over Brazil. In Pernambuco, however, it was modified very much. It is made with a dark dough, based on plum, raisins, crystallized fruit and sweet red wine (instead of milk) and covered in white icing. This formula – a British heritage – makes it last much longer in the fridge. Some couples keep a slice to taste in their first anniversary. 

Recife, May 14, 2013.

sources consulted

CASCUDO, Luis da Câmara. História da alimentação no Brasil. 3. ed. - São Paulo: Global, 2004.

CASCUDO, Luis da Câmara. Sociologia do açúcar: pesquisa e dedução. Rio de Janeiro: Instituto do Açúcar e do Álcool, Serviço de Documentação, 1971.

CULINÁRIA do açúcar. In: CULTURA do açúcar. Recife: Fundaj, Ed. Massangana, 2010. p. 118-121.

FREYRE, Gilberto. Açúcar: em torno da etnografia da história e da sociologia do doce no Nordeste canavieiro do Brasil. 3. ed. rev. e aum. Recife: Fundaj, Ed. Massangana, 1987.

MOTA, Mauro. Culinária e doçaria. In: ______. Votos e ex-votos. Recife: UFPE, Imprensa Universitária, 1968.

QUINTAS, Fátima. A saga do açúcar. Recife: Fundação Gilberto Freyre, 2010.

how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Doçaria no Nordeste brasileiro. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 August  2009.