Where does pão de queijo come from?

An excellent question. I’ve received so much conflicting information on pão de queijo this week — from recipes to individual ingredients to history — I’m almost reluctant to post about it. But then a healthy dose of skepticism is required whenever you’re talking food history, since it’s often indistinguishable from myth.

The most common story about the evolution of pão de queijo involves slaves, specifically those who were forced to process cassava for the estate owners in the state of Minas Gerais. So it’s said, these slaves would collect and hide the residual starch that covered the bottoms of bowls and bins, formed it into balls and secretly baked it. Seems a little romantic to me, but it’s not impossible.

Another origin myth claims that pão de queijo is actually a version of cassava breads made by the Guarani peoples who inhabited the region around what is modern day Paraguay. And while these native South Americans certainly didn’t make “bread” as we now know it, much less “cheese bread” (which is what “pão de queijo” means) they probably made cakes out of pounded cassava in the same way that native North Americans made cakes out of pounded corn.

That pão de queijo is a Europeanized descendant of this type of proto-bread is something I could easily believe. Oh, and did I mention that pão de queijo is actually pronounced pown de KAY zho? Probably not!

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