Out of all the colors I associate with food, blue is the last. Yes, yes, there are blueberries and the lustrous blue on the scales of a fresh-caught fish, but blue is an emotion, a musical note. It’s the spirit of the visceral. So is there a flavor of blue like there’s a flavor of umami?
Saudade in Portuguese means the feeling of longing or melancholy and the exquisite art or expression therein. For me, as a child who grew up in another country, this word gives my melancholy a place to surrender and be savored. All the better if I can toast to it with good food and company, because saudade in a group is the beating heart, while saudade alone is the broken muscle. We eat at memorials with the explicit intent to bind our experience. Religions know this practice well. So do immigrants.
I recently ate at two different restaurants to explore saudade in its bookend forms of Portuguese and Brazilian food. Portugal was one of the most prolific of colonizers in centuries past, and I wonder if saudade was branded into the heartmeat of the country and its conquests over the thousands of miles journeyed by captains and slaves.
First, I ate dinner with an old friend at Uma Casa, a Portuguese restaurant on Church Street in Noe Valley. The space is tessellated with that indescribable blue in ceramic tiles and white arches that make it feel somewhere between a provincial chapel and the nave of a ship. Uma casa means a house or one house, and as I sit down to eat my salada de atum and warmed olives, I realize that when I search for the sublime in food, I’m often looking for the place where salt begins and I surrender to the bite—I come home to it, so to speak. Saudade is very much like that. Uma Casa’s founder and chef, Telmo Faria, tells me one of the reasons he opened the restaurant was to create a place where people could, as it is said in Portuguese, matar a saudades, which literally translates to “kill the saudade,” but when someone does that with food, they are feeding the longing enough to satisfy it for a time. “If someone says they matou a saudade at my restaurant,” Faria reflects, “that is the highest compliment to me.”
Carlos Ferreira, line cook at Uma Casa, brings up the phrase matar a saudades as well. “We use it all the time in the way we speak. The sentiment is as much a part of us as laughter. We drink to the memory of someone, but we also eat a dish in honor of someone’s soul,” Ferreira says.
As the evening turned the tall whitewashed walls into their own twilight, our meal of bacalhau (salt cod fritters with cilantro aioli), pork shoulder, and fresh mariscada had my friend and I swooning into a near dance, levied by our waitress’s perfect wine pairings. As many know, fado is a music and dance form from Portugal that incarnates saudade into a bittersweet longing that will take hold of you. Lucca Zanet, manager at Uma Casa, describes the times Faria has hosted fado music and dance at the restaurant. “The whole place, for one, two, four hours, is taken to Portugal and between the food and the music, we are no longer in San Francisco.” I’ll gladly take that time-and-space-travel ticket the next time Uma Casa hosts a fado night. If the blue is here, may we eat our hearts out.
Because San Francisco is really just a series of those time -and-space capsules we call restaurants, I had to take my second leg of exploring saudade and food at the much-loved Pastel Brazzuca on De Haro at the edge of Potrero Hill. I went with my two sons on a brilliant late morning so they could sample the pão de queijo (cassava flour cheese bread) and obligatory açai bowl. I was more interested in the chicken coxinha (croquettes) and pastel de queijo but we made a feast of it all, trying the ground beef esfiha and Brazilian rice-and-bean plate with salmon. At the bar, men in both business and track suits hunched over their coffee and snacks, grumbling in Portuguese about the soccer game. Pastel Brazzuca is located inside the World Gym building, which makes no sense and complete sense, which is one of the dichotomies I adore when I travel, so it was a welcome confusion. Aside from our table, every other patron there was speaking Portuguese, reading Portuguese language papers, talking Portuguese on their phones.
While Uma Casa made passion fruit sorbet and cornmeal- encrusted octopus for an evening of nostalgia, Pastel Brazzuca serves passion fruit soda and chicken croquettes for the very same reason, just different takes on the mood and the day. Futból is another man’s fado. The coxinha at Pastel Brazzuca is perfectly done and my son and I ponder how many people at the café were regulars because it made them feel like they were home. The concrete walls are painted in classic Brazilian colors, worn down from use. The chef and owner, Wides Vital da Silva, comes out and talks to us about his recent heart attack and recovery, doling chocolates out to the boys, tousling their hair in the way other cultures do. I’m struck at how I miss that kind of familial friendliness that is the de facto way of life where I am from. The boys shy away from it and I find myself in my own saudade, reading the menu and noticing how some of the dishes are a Brazilian take on Middle Eastern words and foods, like esfiha.
I ask my son if he knows that immigrants don’t just come to the U.S., they travel to all kinds of places, Brazil included. “So are there Syrian refugees in Brazil?” he asks. I take a bite of my esfiha. “Yes, I think about 8,000 or so.” I know this because I recently started looking into which non-European countries are accepting Syrians. “I’ll have to show you on a map how the Ottoman Empire tried to take over Portugal and how much that influenced the country.” “Even now? So is capoeira part of the Ottoman Empire?” We practice Brazil’s martial art, capoeira, as a family. I don’t quite know how to answer that simply, so I just reply, “In a way, yes. Food and dance tie it all together.” But he’s lost interest and is taken up in the soccer game on the screen. It reflects on the blue wall like a spectre of ghosts playing their hearts out.