THE first time I entered a restaurant in Recife, Brazil's major northeastern resort, I was astonished to see featured on the menu kibe - a meat and wheat patty whose home is the Middle East. In the ensuing days I discovered that this famous Syrian dish had become Brazilian. Served in almost every eating place throughout the land, it's prepared in a much tastier fashion than its country of origin.
I should not have been surprised. The ethnic mixture and diversified climate of Brazil have been responsible for one of the most varied kitchens in all of South America.
For centuries, Brazilian cooks have borrowed from the foods of other cultures, then combined them with their own to produce an interesting and fascinating wide-ranging culinary world.
Aboriginal Indian; West African and Portuguese - both influenced by the Moors; and other ethnic foods - German, Italian, Japanese, Syrian - have entered into the cuisine of that vast country.
Today, coconut products are heavily employed in the Brazilian kitchen. They are used in fish and meat stews as well as in sweets. (Most sweets in Brazil's cuisine are of Portuguese origin with strong Moorish overtones.)
Brazil nuts are also important as appetizers - after being salted, toasted, or even made into chips. Pulverized nuts are even added to soups.
Before the white man came, the Indians cultivated beans, corn, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and manioc root - their principal food.
Rice, introduced into the Iberian peninsula by the conquering Arabs, was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese. Bananas, coconuts, and yams came along with the African slaves.
Rice and beans became the basic diet of the Brazilians - so much so that Brazil is often known as ``the land of beans.''
In the northeast of the country - the first part of Brazil to be colonized - the African slaves, who were imported in great numbers for plantation work, did most of the cooking.
The Portuguese women colonists were very few and very pampered. They disdained kitchen work. Hence, the enslaved blacks were mainly responsible for developing the true Brazilian cuisine. Among the people of Brazil, there's a saying, ``the blacker the cook, the better the food.''
As their ancestors had done in Africa, they lavishly spiced their dishes, using chili powder as one of the most important flavorings. In the following years these hot spices became the norm for recipes in the north.
Southward, however, the spicy foods are not so prevalent, replaced by numerous immigrant dishes - a legacy of the many foreign communities in that part of the land.
Dend^e oil, extracted from the fruit of the West African palm, is the most common fat employed in preparing food.
The oil is one of the important ingredients which, along with coconuts and Brazil nuts, helps to create in visitors and inhabitants alike an appetite for the victuals of that Amazon land.
The epitome of the Brazilian kitchen is feijoada (fay-ZHWAH-dah) - the national dish of the country. This complicated mixture of beans, salted meats, sausages, and rice is considered by inhabitants the king of all food.
However, its preparation is so time consuming that the dish is hard to find in restaurants.
In the homes, as well as in restaurants, feijoada is traditionally served only at noon on Saturdays.
In the past, feijoada was known as a lowly peasant food, and most of the well-to-do were ashamed to offer it to guests.
But today, even in the best of homes feijoada is served, especially to large festive gatherings. When prepared for these banquets, this dish, as its name feijoada completa implies, is by itself a wonderful and complete meal.
A number of the ingredients, such as the preserved meat called carne seca, are difficult if not impossible to find in the United States, but these can be easily replaced.
For the simplified version of Brazilian feijoada printed in the far left-hand column of this page, you should be able to find all the ingredients in most large food outlets.