Collard greens are the preferred greens across Brazil, where they’re typically fried in oil with garlic. But in Minas Gerais, a state famous throughout Brazil for its cuisine, a protein-rich cactus with an unusual name is the hearty leaf of choice. Ora-pro-nobis (“Pray for us” in Latin) is coveted for its nutritional and medicinal value—and its rebellious legacy.
For it was a clever plan hatched by slaves to trick Catholic missionaries that gave ora-pro-nobis its name.
When the Americas were divided between Spain and Portugal at the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the lands today known as Brazil went, of course, to the Portuguese.
Indigenous people in the interior (like what is now Minas Gerais) were initially shrouded from the zealous adventurers and bandeirantes (slave hunters) by the region’s dense growth and unforgiving climate. But not for long.
The feared bandeirantes—who were descendants of first- and second-generation Portuguese, mostly from São Paulo, and people of mixed Portuguese and Amerindian blood—discovered gold after slashing a path to mineral-rich Minas Gerais. Through murder and disease, they devastated the 100 or so groups of Amerindians in the territory and enslaved those who survived. Today a few groups like the Maxakali are barely hanging on, numbering about 2,000, while tribes like the Kaxixó, Aranã, and Pataxó have populations of about 300 or fewer. Others are extinct.
The colonizers erected baroque churches in the late 1600s and throughout the 1700s to convert their slaves. In many houses of worship in Minas Gerais, like the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Sabará, protective hedges of Pereskia aculeata, a thorny scrambling shrub in the Cactaceae family that’s native to the tropical Americas, were planted around the ornate buildings as decoration.
Pereskia aculeata was known as carne de pobre (poor man’s meat), because of the high protein content and other nutrients in its leaves. It also has healing qualities: It’s an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, and the mucilage of its leaves helps wounds heal.
However, for the Amerindian slaves and West African slaves (who were transported to the region to replace the slaughtered natives), the health-giving leaves guarding the temples of the conquistadors’ faith were forbidden fruit—or succulents, in this case. The slaves were not allowed to harvest the plants encircling the churches.
But according to legend, that didn’t stop them.
During mass, when the priest uttered the Latin phrase ora pro nobis, or “pray for us,” the slaves readied for action. The phrase was followed by a long prayer, which the slaves used as a diversion to harvest the thorny plant’s leaves while the priest’s voice echoed off the church walls. “Ora pro nobis” became code for harvesting the off-limits plant.
To this day, ora-pro-nobis is little known outside Minas Gerais. But in the town of Sabará, its legacy of resistance is preserved.
Mineiros head there for a chicken stew made with ora-pro-nobis, garlic, onion, and lime juice and over a wood fire. Other local favorites mix ora-pro-nobis with pork ribs and angú (corn polenta). In Sabará, even dishes normally made with collard greens substitute refogado, a ora-pro-nobis sauté.
Each May, the Festival do Ora-pro-Nóbis de Sabará celebrates the plant in traditional dishes like chicken with ora-pro-nobis, as an accompaniment to tutu de feijão (refried beans thickened with manioc flour), as well as in salads, omelets, and any other dish enhanced by the tasty cactus.
If you’re in Belo Horizonte, it’s worth taking the 20-minute drive to Sabará for a plate of angu, refogado, and pork ribs—which combines native ingredients (corn and ora-pro-nobis) with the African cooking technique of sautéeing greens and with pork, from the Iberian Peninsula, to make a sinfully delicious plate born of the gold rush.