Picanha – The Brazilian Brand of Meat

The rear of the steer (or heifer) is the most sought-after piece of meat in Brazil. In fact, I’d bet that Brazilian scientists have dreamed of one day creating an animal that only produces such meat.

One might not know it by its name in English, a cut of beef whose technical denomination alternates between the ‘rump cover’ and ‘rump cap’, but in Portuguese it’s called picanha. The reason Americans might not know about it is due to the fact that American butchers generally divide up that region into other cuts like the rump, the round and the loin. That being said, there isn’t much of a point in discussing what picanha is and isn’t because there’s a very slim chance of finding a single American cut in your local supermarket to define it.

For such a great piece of meat, it has an unusual name. One story behind the name speaks of a once important Brazilian industrialist, named Francisco “Baby” Pignatari, who used to eat at a churrascaria called “Bambu” in São Paulo and his favorite type of meat was the top sirloin. On one occasion, the restaurant served him another kind of meat by mistake. Not initially noticing the difference, he ate it and loved it, at which point he asked the Argentine server about the region of the animal that the meat came from. The Argentine said it came from the part “donde se pica la aña“, which is apparently Argentine Spanish for “where one brands (the cow with the hot iron)”. From there, it is said the name picanha is derived (pica + aña).

A more simple, yet slightly-related explanation comes from veterinarian Pedro Eduardo de Felício, at a university in São Paulo who says that in the south of Brazil, the branding iron is called a picanha. Over time, the area of the animal that received the branding was called by the name of the instrument that did the branding.

Tips

No matter where the name comes from, the main thing is that you enjoy every single piece! There are a few tips for doing just that. When buying picanha, experts say it should weigh less than two and a half pounds. Anything more and it is most likely you will be paying for part of the “coxão duro” (silverside), which is a tougher meat located next to the picanha cut. The layer of fat on the bottom of the piece of picanha should be about one centimeter thick, otherwise the bovine was raised and fed in an unfit manner. Also, the color of the fat should be either white or light yellow, if it’s yellower than that, it means the animal was most likely old and the meat will be tougher than normal.

As for the actual cooking part, picanha is cooked over high heat, so if you are a fan of black pepper and don’t want it to burn up in the process, add it afterwards. All the picanha I’ve ever had was well-salted while it cooked but it’s important to use rock salt instead of sea salt because the latter will most likely ruin your picanha. The best tip of all, though, is to watch a Brazilian do it!

Below is a video (in Portuguese) that you can watch with a Brazilian and learn how to choose the right piece. By browsing Youtube you can watch a variety of videos on all aspects of picanha, although if you’d rather just eat it, many major cities have churrascarias where you are able to eat until the cows come home!

Another one in English

Originally written for Street Smart Brazil.

Brazil, Through a Kid’s Eyes

Like a typical kid, I asked, “Are we there yet” one too many times. Without the desired response, I decided to surrender. I took refuge by doing what kids on airplanes do best and glued my face to the small window next to me. Soon the blue of the sea became dark green as the plane began to fly over the large land mass below. My eyes instantly fixed on the Amazon river below. It seemed like a serpent the way that it was so curved, only this serpent was missing it’s head.

Hours passed and as we closed in on our destination, the makings of an immense city showed itself in the distance. This is normally when the captain would come on over the intercom and announce he was preparing for a landing but he never did. What seemed like a lifetime later, the plane still soared above the city, passing over countless buildings and skyscrapers. I was amazed by its enormity. The long-awaited announcement finally came and we began our descent.

We landed at Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo, Brazil on June 20th, 1997, according to my brand-new passport. I was with my father, who from time to time, had to travel outside the U.S. to meet with foreign clients. He never brang much luggage, just a change of clothes, a good book and occasionally one of his four sons. My older brothers chose to accompany our father to some pretty interesting countries, such as India, the Philippines, and Spain. When my turn came around, I chose a place that I learned would later haunt me for years to come.

After we landed and retrieved our baggage, a taxi whisked us away to the hotel. Aside from our room having green carpet and orange walls, it seemed like any other hotel. Once there, my father sat me down for a talk. He knew that I knew virtually nothing about Brazilian culture or customs and therefore told me not to leave the hotel while he was at work. I didn’t argue even though I wanted to.

When we got settled, he had some errands to run before his meeting, so I was dropped off at the closest mall. After scouring the whole place for something to buy, I ended up in a clothing store. I found a cool blue shirt and walked up to the counter. Without saying anything, I put the shirt down and pulled out some strange foreign bills from my pocket. Since I didn’t speak Portuguese and the shirt didn’t have a price tag, I handed a wad of money to the female cashier and she kindly gave back what wasn’t needed. By the time I got out of the store and to the parking lot, my father was waiting in a cab, ready to take me to dinner.

I ended up with my father’s business associates at a steakhouse downtown. While the older people gave their attention to work, I gave mine to the little wooden trinket next to my plate. One side was colored red and the other was green. Since my mind associated the colors with stop and go, I quickly picked up the name of the game. As long as I turned the trinket to the green side, the waiters kept bringing me more to eat. I felt like a king, and although the food never ran out, my need for it did. The next morning in the hotel room, we packed up the personal items we unpacked the day before and proceeded towards the airport again. Our next stop was the ‘marvelous city’ of Rio de Janeiro.

The hotel my father booked sent a car to pick us up in order to make things less confusing. After sitting through traffic and getting my first glimpse of some poor parts of the city, we pulled up to a place I thought looked like the White House, its actual name was the Copacabana Palace. We went up to our room on the third story and I went straight to the window, which gave me a panoramic of Copacabana beach. Again, my father repeated his words of warning and still I listened. For two days I stayed at that window with the view that continues to frequent my mind till this day.

On occasion I left the room to explore the bottom floor of the hotel, which housed the lobby, the pool and the gift store among other things. The evening before we were to leave Brazil, my father and I went on a self-guided tour of the famous Copacabana sidewalk. It was full of swerving lines that reminded me of the Amazon a few days before. As night fell, we decided to return to our hotel and ready our things for the morning. I could finally return to the more lenient, less restrictive life I knew in California. No more talks, hotels or words I didn’t understand. At that point in my young life that was all I wanted.

As the years went by, my longing to see all things Brazilian secretly grew. Coincidentally, around that time, one of my brothers asked me to go with him on a trip to Brazil. I seriously considered it, but in many ways I was still naïve, so I declined. Our conversation about Brazil made me rethink my thoughts and experiences there. I’d like to thank my brother for unknowingly sparking something in me.

Soon after discussing his longing for a journey, I had a longing of my own. So for three years, on and off, I studied as much as I could about Brazilian culture and customs. I studied about the place I saw but never really knew. Maybe I haven’t found all the answers to all my questions, I’m fine with that. For me, the journey is more important than the destination.