Thiago Mateus was watching the Brazil episode of Street Food: Latin America on Netflix when he had the idea to put moqueca (seafood stew) into his empadão. An empadão is a larger version of Brazil’s popular pies, known as empada.
“Here in Melbourne, you’ve got a lot of pie shops. Stuff you would see in a restaurant, like smoked brisket, they put in a pie,” says Mateus. “Moqueca is a very famous dish in Brazil, so I did a couple of tests with the filling.”
Moqueca is made with any mix of seafood (usually prawn or fish), onion, garlic, tomato, coriander, coconut milk, capsicum and, in the northern state of Bahia, chilli and dendê oil from local palm trees. For Mateus, putting moqueca in a pie is both an opportunity to showcase it to Melbourne and a way around his distaste for peas (traditional prawn empadas contain peas, tomato and are thickened with flour).
“The Brazilian community here is quite small compared to the Asian community, compared to the European community, compared to the Arabian community. Not many people know about Brazilian and Latin food in general,” he says. “I want to show to Australians and people from other cultures as well that Brazilian food is not just the feijoada and the churrasco. Our cuisine is so vast; the variety is massive.”
Mateus grew up in São Paulo watching his mother (who was adopted by an Italian family) make pasta and his father, a butcher, break down whole animals. He often cooks for friends and family, but only ever as a hobby. Mateus, a journalist by trade who went into public relations, found that his interest in food grew when he started representing chefs and restaurants. Inspired, he looked into commercial cookery courses but quickly pushed his aspirations aside when he saw the prohibitive cost.
“Here in Melbourne you’ve got a lot of pie shops. Stuff you would see in a restaurant, like smoked brisket, they put in a pie,” says Mateus. “Moqueca is a very famous dish in Brazil, so I did a couple of tests with the filling.”
When Mateus moved to Melbourne in 2014 he couldn’t land a job in public relations. Instead, he turned to restaurants, working his way up from a dishwasher in an Italian venue, to carving meat at the table in B'Churrasco in the city, to working in the kitchens of Mamasita, Bistro Guillaume and Polperro Winery in Red Hill. When the pandemic hit, Mateus was working for a French-owned catering company. Like his workplace, he wasn’t eligible for government support.
Mateus shared his empadão for guests at a dinner party after restrictions eased following Melbourne’s first lockdown. One requested more for his birthday party, and the attendees were so taken by the empadão that they placed orders. It wasn’t until quitting his job in a school canteen (Mateus felt guilty serving children unhealthy food), that he officially launched Samba Empadas.
Mateus began offering a 1.4-kilogram empadão de palmito (made with hearts of palm) and a 1.6-kilogram spiced chicken and spiced corn empadão. The labour-intensive moqueca pie is the latest addition to the menu, taking five hours alone to cook and thicken the stew so it’s the right consistency for Mateus’ flaky, lard-laced pastry. He makes just 10 per week.
“You’re not going to find this in Brazil,” says Mateus.
When he told his mother that he’d put moqueca in empadão, “she couldn’t believe it”.
Mateus adores Australia’s abundance of fresh seafood – creating moqueca from local prawns wasn’t as far a stretch as his mother might think.
“I can put both worlds in one dish: the beautiful Australian seafood and the Brazilian moqueca, in a pie, in an empadão. The Brazilians are enjoying it and the Australians are enjoying it,” he says.
Pandemic permitting, Mateus hopes to eventually open an empada bar modelled on those in Brazil.
“When you go to a Mexican restaurant, you have tacos and beers; I want to have a place where you have empadas and beers and caipirinhas,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when the restrictions are eased, but I hope people get back to their normal lives and that I can be a part of them.”
Mateus is booked out a few weeks in advance, but people in Melbourne can order from Samba Empadas by emailing email@example.com.
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