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Interview #9: Natalia Pereira's Coxhinas
"You probably get like two or three bites out of one coxinha, but it’s two or three very remarkable bites."
When Natalia and I connected in late May for this interview, she was in the throes of an intense creative high, having stayed up until 4 a.m. the night prior making small, intricate dolls out of paper and found objects.
The first doll—there are now hundreds—came about last year. Natalia was staying in a building that was being repainted, came across large sheets of brown paper covered with paint and tape, and asked the painters if she could have them. “I literally looked at the paper and I had this feeling, and I saw all these images of these women, and I began making them,” she says.
She’s hoping to turn them into some form of exhibition, via a gallery, or a book, or a globe-spanning art project where those in possession of a doll send her letters about where they are and what they’ve seen. “Sometimes I have them all in my living room, and I come home at night and I look at them, and it’s like a village,” she says. “They have no faces, they have no color, they have no shape, no shade—they are just all of us.”
Why am I starting this newsletter by talking about dolls and not dumplings? Because taking something humble and accessible and then painstakingly transforming it into something special and deeply personal is Natalia’s superpower. It’s how she approaches doll-making, and fine art, and, at Woodspoon, the Brazilian restaurant she’s operated in downtown Los Angeles since 2006, dumplings—in this case, the chicken-stuffed Brazilian croquettes known as coxinhas (co-sheen-yas). “Not having many things growing up, I was able to use the simple and the minimal to create something greater,” she says in the video above from The Selby, which shows a glimpse into her creative process.
Coxinhas are one of the most popular street foods in Brazil. While they’re not expensive, Natalia calls them “a little privilege,” which is fitting: There’s the intensive time and skill it takes to stir, knead and fill the chicken broth, flour, and butter-based dough before hand-shaping it into teardrops, but also the alleged origins of the croquettes themselves. According to The Culture Trip (and corroborated elsewhere):
One of the more romantic and fanciful theories dates back to the 19th century and Brazil’s imperial period. The story goes that one of the sons of Princess Isabel, the daughter of Emperor Pedro II, refused to eat anything other than fried chicken drumsticks, until one day, at one of the royal family’s farms in the state of São Paulo, they ran out of the child’s favorite food. In a bind, the family’s chef decided to shred meat from other parts of the chicken, form it into the shape of a drumstick, and fry it. The boy is said to have adored the new invention, and the boy’s grandmother, Empress Teresa Cristina, demanded the snack be served in royal kitchens around the country.
Natalia grew up in the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, and her recipes at Woodspoon are an homage to her mother, Francisca. Coxinhas star in the restaurant’s signature appetizer “mix plate,” where they share space with a shrimp and coconut-filled pastel portuguese, a potato croquette, a bolinho de bacalhau (a salt cod fritter), and kibe (a mix of bulgur, ground beef, and mint, served with a lime wedge). “Brazil is a culture that contains many cultures, so we try to embrace that,” she says.
Below, in her words1, learn about Natalia’s own connection to coxinhas and what makes hers unique. Natalia’s life experiences and many forms of artistic expression—from drawing and photography to poetry, sculpture, and recipes—are encapsulated in Abundancia: My Life in Recipes, an art book created in collaboration with Crosstown Press that ships next month and can be pre-ordered via the Woodspoon website.
“I was raised by someone that loves to cook— my adoptive mother, Francisca. She would cook for other people, and everything she did was with such excellence that made people so happy. I used to love to eat sardines by the can, and she’d give me all of my little sardine cans to play with as my pots and pans. She would have her big stove, and I would have my ‘little stove’ outside.
Coxinhas are one of the most popular street foods in Brazil. It’s something where if you you are in a bus stop, you get one; if you are in a gas station, you get one; if there's a special birthday party, you get one. There are women that sell them in baskets. You go to walk in a park, and you see all these women with these beautifully crafted pastries.
I used to be fascinated by what they looked like, because they look like a teardrop. The meaning is basically ‘thigh,’ like chicken thigh. Thigh is ‘coxa,’ and a small thigh is ‘coxinha.’
One day, I said, ‘Mama, I want to make those.’ I was around 7 or 8. I didn't know that she could cook something like that, because she was very rustic, and these were something that’s a little privilege kind of thing, even though there’s not a lot of money involved—for example, if you go to a movie theater on a weekend, you get a coxinha.
I remember playing, and then she came out with these tiny little ones—many of them. It looked like a little army. That, for me, was probably the most beautiful artwork that I could eat.
So I began making coxinha with her then, and that is the same coxinha that I serve at my restaurant at Woodspoon. Serving something like that is intimate. It's personal.
My coxinha is very simple, but has a few key techniques. First, you cook the chicken, and then you have to let it sit in the broth for a little bit after it's cooked. We let it cool, and then we handpick it and shred it. We prepare the dough using the broth that we cook the chicken in. You cook it until it’s lifting from the pot, and then you begin working on it by hand, removing any lumps, until it’s completely shiny.
Then you open up a little well, and you fill it up with shredded chicken, a little parsley, a little fresh ground pepper. We use spices that are from Brazil, like malagueta peppers. Some people also put in this cheese, called catupiry. It’s Brazilian, almost like a cream cheese.
Then you seal it—you squeeze it, twisting it until it turns into a teardrop shape. Before I bread mine, I do a wash in very ice cold water and egg white, which seals the dough and prevents grease from getting in. And then you breadcrumb.
Every time you eat it, it's very crunchy, the dough is chewy, and the chicken is full of flavor. We serve it with a house aioli. You pick it up from the tip, dip it into the aioli, and then you take a bite. You probably get like two or three bites out of one coxinha, but it’s two or three very remarkable bites.
Pretty much my whole kitchen has been with me for 11 years, and it's like three people. We make them together. It takes time, the same hand movements. The way it's shaped—it cannot be too big, it cannot be too small, they all always have to look uniform. So you have to have an eye for it. And it takes like half of a day when we do batches of, like, hundreds of them. We don't have a lot of storage space—from the front door to the kitchen it's 850 square feet. They sell quickly, so we basically make them about three times a week.
For me personally and for my customers that have been eating here for 15 years, the fact that I was able to create this moment where they taste the same, and look the same, and remind me of home, I think I have accomplished something really special.
I am so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to create a certain space, to create certain dishes, to allow people to get to know a little bit about Brazil on a more personal level than just in propaganda.
We have had people that come in and they cry, or they say, ‘I feel like somebody who really loved me made this for me,’ which takes a lot of responsibility. I was able to capture my mother's essence and bring that up with me. And now I'm sharing it with Los Angeles, and the world, and hopefully I'll continue to do so.
It's a quick buy, but the creation process of it is beautiful, it is time consuming, it requires discipline, and it requires care and love. And I think that's why Woodspoon it is what it is, and our coxinha is what it is.”
The above interview was condensed and edited. Interview subjects are paid an honorarium for taking the time to share their knowledge and experience.
This was one of those interviews where I wished Above the Fold had a podcast component, because there’s an intangible spark and energy to Natalia’s voice as she talks about her work that simply can’t be replicated in the written word. Alas, maybe one day :)