• This deep-fried street snack is immensely popular in Brazil. (Yo Brazilian Pastel)Source: Yo Brazilian Pastel
Sydney's Yo Brazilian Pastel offers a deep-fried street food with surprising Japanese origins. Why not try the pizza flavour?
Lee Tran Lam

14 Aug 2020 - 11:51 AM  UPDATED 14 Aug 2020 - 11:51 AM

It happened three times in one week: Yoshio Mori dreamt about Brazilian pastéis.

Pastéis (the singular form is 'pastel') is immensely popular in his homeland – particularly in São Paulo, Brazil, where he grew up.

They're usually found at markets, served golden-brown: their rich colour deepens after a few minutes in sizzling oil, as crisp bubbles appear on their smooth dough surfaces and hot oil steams their fillings. They may be stuffed with seasoned beef and cheese - a popular but elusive flavour that was often sold out when Mori's mum dropped by the market to buy him a school-time treat. They could also be chicken and Brazilian catupiry cream cheese (which she'd get for him instead) or a cheese-tomato-oregano-olive flavour, affectionately called "pizza" pastéis by locals. 

There's debate over the pastel's origins, but it was likely created by the Japanese community that settled in Brazil more than a century ago. Perhaps they developed the dish from Chinese spring rolls, or they were inspired by wonton wrappers or gyoza dumplings. What's certain: by frying pastry sheets, Japanese cooks created a savoury parcel-shaped snack that became a national food that hints at Brazil's immigration history.

"The biggest Japanese population outside Japan is in Brazil," says Mori. The community's presence is especially strong in São Paulo: its Liberdade district is home to the world's largest Japantown and its giant nine-metre torii gate is a local landmark. Japanese migrants began arriving in the country in 1908 – not long after Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 and coffee plantations were seeking cheap workers. As the BBC reports, Japanese migrants soon realised they would be better off working their own plots of land.

Some decades later, they invented the Brazilian pastel – right?

Mori, who has spent years researching the snack, has another theory.

"I think the origins come from dumplings, made by the Japanese, but at some point, it got mixed and twisted in [with] Italian food," he says. Think of the pizza fritta from Naples and other similar fried-dough snacks.

He believes there's also a likely Portuguese influence (given the country's colonisation of Brazil). "São Paulo also has a big Lebanese community, they have something called sambousek [which is also a stuffed pastry]," he adds.

So perhaps over time, the pastel has taken on many cultural influences. It has also shapeshifted into not-so-traditional forms, too: Rio de Janeiro's Bar do Adão sells an apricot and brie flavour, while Mori has heard of a hot dog version stuffed with frankfurts, mashed potato and corn. But when the pastel overtook his dreams three times in one week, this wasn’t the flavour he had in mind. The chef wanted a classic version of his favourite Brazilian food.

"I was really craving it," he says.

At this point, he'd been living in Sydney for several years: he'd arrived in 2011 and was soon working as a sushi chef, hoping to open a Japanese restaurant one day.

So, he was far from São Paulo's pastel stalls. There were a few local Brazilian restaurants that served the deep-fried pastry, but none lived up to the standard set by his imagination – and memories.  

"I looked for a recipe on the Internet. Then I made the dough, the fillings and deep-fried it," he says. The chef's then-girlfriend then said something that would change his life – and led to him eventually launching Yo Brazilian Pastel, the business he started last May.

Instead of making sushi, why not sell his favourite dish?

"I was really craving it."

After all, the pastel reflected his background ("my mum's Brazilian, my dad's Japanese") and was intrinsic to Brazilian life: you'd grab one (or two!) for a work lunch, after veggie-shopping at the market, or as part of a school-day diet (in Mori's case). But it was a rarity in Sydney.

Plus, focusing on pastéis made sense for his career, too.

"I'd always wanted to work with Japanese food," says the chef, "but when I came to Australia, it's everywhere – there's so much competition."

Before opening Yo Brazilian Pastel, he spent three months mastering the pastry with a third-generation pastel-maker in São Paulo. He also drew on a lifetime of eating the snack (traditional rectangular pastéis are superior to the half-moon versions, he believes).

When he brought Yo Brazilian Pastel to local markets, he offered the typical flavours he grew up with: beef and cheese, the "pizza" flavour (renamed as "cheese and tomato", so no one expects pepperoni toppings) and pulled chicken with Brazilian "catupiry" cheese.

Because he's unable to find the Brazilian cheese locally, he creates a home-made version that evokes the mildly ripe flavours of the cream cheese that's hugely popular in his homeland. ("We put catupiry in everything," he says.) Mori also offers local condiments, too, like a Brazilian red pepper sauce and a Brazilian garlic sauce, but admits he couldn't fully replicate the pastel experience of his homeland.

"Usually in Brazil, it is very traditional to eat pastel together with sugarcane juice," he says. Unfortunately, he's unable to sell the drink at the moment, and instead presents Guaraná, a popular soft drink made from the Amazonian fruit of the same name. It's like a slightly less sweet creaming soda and a ubiquitous beverage locally (it's the sponsor of the Brazilian soccer team).

Since Yo Brazilian Pastel's launch, Mori has deep-fried his pastéis at various markets across Sydney. At Newtown Festival, he served 550 golden-brown pastries in one day. He’s proud to raise the profile of his national cuisine. "Brazilian food is not really well known, apart from Brazilian barbecue," he says. Or feijoada stew.

Churrasco de picanha

“Traditionally, the only preparation for picanha (rump caps or round) in Brazil is the use of rock salt. Brown herb butter is Patricia’s addition and optional.” Maeve O’Meara, Food Safari Fire

As for the pastel, he only knows of one other business that sells it exclusively in Sydney, Pastel de Mari, but its stall is temporarily closed.

"I was lucky that I was able to keep trading during the pandemic," says the chef. Mori recently resumed selling at Kings Cross' Saturday market and, since April, he's had a pop-up shopfront at the old location of Erskineville's Kuki Tanuki (where he worked for five years).

Mori plans to stay open in Erskineville for at least another three months, but his presence there is temporary. Residents – particularly Brazilian-Australians – are keen for him to continue deep-frying his pastéis and handing them out with a can of Guaraná, though. "Please stay! they tell him."

In the meantime, whether you're in Erskineville or at the Kings Cross market, you can keep asking Mori to serve you the pastel of his dreams.

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