When I was a kid, my cousin would often make pão de queijo, or Brazilian cheese bread. Everyone in the family loved it, except for me, who refused to even try it. The concept of using tapioca as a replacement for flour just did not sit well with the logic of my younger self.
Then, at age 14, I moved to Amman, Jordan. It was difficult. I went through culture shock, homesickness and such high levels of anxiety that I could hardly swallow my food. I lost 30 pounds in just a few months.
Suddenly, I needed my home. I missed the aroma of my cousin’s baked spheres of cheese and tapioca, which I had stubbornly rejected for my whole childhood. It was a sense of home, a feeling of being loved and cared for by my family.
I asked my cousin for the recipe, which fittingly carried the headline “You Never Knew You Needed This Brazilian Cheese Bread Recipe.”
As I was searching for her recipe, I came across some articles, such as this one, describing the history of Brazilian cheese bread.
Until the late 1800s, enslaved people in the Portuguese colony of Brazil were forced to harvest, peel, grate and soak cassava in order to make it edible. From the 16th to 19th centuries, enslaved people in Brazil collected the discarded tapioca starch from their labor and mixed it with water to create a dough which was baked and eaten to supplement their diets.
Years later, after slavery was made illegal in Brazil, descendants of enslaved people began to add ingredients such as cheese and milk to the dough, and pão de queijo, or Brazilian cheese bread, was born.
Over a century later, I was born, a foodie who never deviated from my mother’s classic fluffy dinner rolls and was generally clueless about world history. But when I moved to Jordan, I was desperate for familiarity.
The bread only took about 15 minutes to whip up and another half hour to bake. When it was done, I spent a few minutes savoring the smell of home before biting into one.
It was crusty on the outside, cheesy and chewy on the inside and packed with flavor. I wolfed down five fist-sized balls and then instantly regretted my greed when my stomach began to hurt. I wish I could say that taught me a lesson on moderation, but as soon as I had digested them, I gobbled down another few.
“Ever since then, Brazilian cheese bread has become a staple food in my life.” —Maryam Khan SC ’23
After that, I hobbled over to my couch to wait for a blissful food coma to take over. As I lay there, philosophical thoughts occurred to me, as they often do in my moments of lethargy. There I was, an American girl of South Asian descent, living in Jordan and baking bread invented by a Portuguese colony in Brazil.
Ever since then, Brazilian cheese bread has become a staple food in my life. I will eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or all three. It tastes amazing with soup, coffee or just alone as a snack. I have made it for friends, family and distant relatives, and all have loved it.
When I finally jumped on the TikTok bandwagon in 2019, I found a way of making Brazilian cheese bread that is now my go-to recipe. Though the bread turns out fluffier and lighter than authentic Brazilian cheese bread, it tastes just as good and appeals to my lazy sensibilities; throwing everything into the blender and pouring it into muffin tins is just so much easier.
Even if you don’t know it yet, you definitely need Brazilian cheese bread in your life. Take it from this skeptic.
Maryam Khan SC ’23 is one of TSL’s food columnists. She is a writing and rhetoric major who enjoys reading, writing and all kinds of food.