By Zelideth María Rivas, guest blogger
This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.
Turnovers. Empanadas. Pastelillos. Pastel. Let’s face it, we can’t have just one: pastéis. Many Latin American cultures have them. All Brazilian lanchonetes, bars, and feiras serve them. But only Yoka’s restaurant consistently appears at competitions like São Paulo’s Comer e Beber. Located on Rua dos Estudantes, 37 in the Asian neighborhood of Liberdade, shop owner Luiza Kazuko Yokoyama Ohno uses recipes handed down to her from her father, while also creating new flavors that surprise and intrigue her customers. Not only a second-generation pastel maker, she is also a second-generation Japanese Brazilian, speaking Japanese with some of her customers and innovating her most popular pastel: “o japonês.”
Filled with tofu, shitake, kamaboko (fish cake), and chives, this pastel has been a staple at her shop for over ten years, surprising since she’s had the shop since 1996. The earthy shitake dominates each bite, making the customer appreciate the rich, moist filling that contrasts with the dry, flaky dough. This is not your typical pastel. Instead of a peppery hot sauce, this one is served with shoyu (soy sauce). Luiza specifically created this pastel to attract new customers. I sat down with Luiza on June 26 to discuss the popularity of her pastéis, a well-known Latin American treat.
Luiza, the youngest child of four, grew up watching her father make pastel. Her father, Takashi Yokoyama, arrived from Mie, Japan in 1933 to work as a contract laborer on the coffee plantations in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil. After some years, he went out to the city of São Paulo to apprentice with a pastel maker. At the time, it was rare to see a Japanese pastel maker. However, after a brief return to the countryside during World War II, he innovated four pastéis: queijo (cheese), palmito (hearts of palm), carne (ground beef), and carne com ovo (ground beef with egg). This last addition to his menu made him popular, becoming the pastel that his customers remember.
Carrying on her father’s experimentations in creating new flavors for pastéis, Yoka currently carries thirty-three flavors, both savory and sweet. From codfish to guava paste and white cheese, you can find it at Yoka. Today, feiras pop up in every corner of São Paulo. Look carefully and you’ll probably find that the person responsible for that pastel you’re eating may just be a Japanese Brazilian.
More about our guest blogger:
Zelideth María Rivas is an Assistant Professor of Japanese at Marshall University. Her research focuses on the conception of race through literature written by Asian immigrants in the Americas, as well as the representation of race in Japan in post-World War II literature and film. She is the author of “Narrating Japaneseness through World War II: The Brazilianization, Peruvianization, and US Americanization of Immigrants” (in Expanding Latinidad: An Inter-American Perspective, WVT Wissenchaftilecher Verlag Trier, 2012) and “Projecting Mixed Race: Negotiating, Nostalgia, and the Rejection of Japanese-Brazilian Biracial Children” (in Journal of Asian American Studies 14.3, October 2011).