GUIDE TO BRAZIL
FOOD & DRINK
In Brazil, eating is, like so many other things, another pretext for pleasure-taking. There is no such thing as Brazilian haute cuisine per se, but the food tastes damned good almost anywhere you go. Even more remarkable is the cultural know-how about what, where, when and how to eat.
This arte de comer bem (art of eating well) has nothing to do with either fussiness, d francesa, or pseudo-scientific taboos, b americana . Brazilians simply understand that the body feels better when it’s kept hydrated with fruit and water while at the beach, or that a fattening little snack and a few sips of strong coffee or cold beer make the ride home from work infinitely more pleasant.
The food is as syncretic as the country itself The most basic ‘Brazilian’ meal can include Portuguese olive oil, native manioc, Japanese sushi, African okra, Italian pasta, German sausage and Lebanese tabbouleh. Still, the cuisine can be reduced to three delightful principles: generosity, freshness and simplicity.
First, you should plan for some of the largest portions on the planet – a single main course can leave two people stuffed. It’s hard to go hungry here, even on the most modest budget. As for freshness, the fertile soil and luxuriant climate ensure that a stunning variety of produce is available at all times. Many of the local fruit and vegetable names have no translation simply because they exist nowhere else. Packaged foods are generally frowned upon, and farm animals are rarely pumped full of hormones, if only because of the prohibitive cost.
Given the richness and variety of fresh ingredients, Brazilians generally cat their food neat. They feel no need for fancy sauces or rarefied cooking processes. Meat is coated in salt and set on the grill, while veggies are steamed and served straight up. Simply add a drizzle of olive oil and a bit of salt to taste. That said, there are complex regional dishes that are well worth their careful preparation.
You can be sure of one thing in Brazil – you’re going to eat well.
STAPLES & SPECIALITIES
Just as there’s no ‘typical’ Brazilian face, there’s no single Brazilian cuisine. Foodies prefer to say it’s a conglomeration of regional cuisines, each itself a hybrid of ethnic cuisines adapted to local conditions. That said, here follows a description of a typical Brazilian meal – available just about anywhere you go.
Certainly, the meal will include arroz e feijdo (rice and beans), the principle staples of the Brazilian diet. Each is cooked with garlic and onions. To the rice add tomatoes, and to the beans add bay leaves and perhaps some bacon. On top of the beans, sprinkle farofa – manioc flour sauteed in butter, perhaps with bits of egg or bacon. Grilled meats, known as churrasco or grelhadas, are the meal’s crowning glory: chicken, beef or pork is dredged in salt, set on a spit and grilled slowly over an open fire. A green salad or sauteed or steamed vegetables (beets, carrots, green beans, yams or kale) round out the main course. A digestive pause is followed by sobremesa (dessert), which could include either fresh or preserved fruit, a pudding enlivened with coconut or passion fruit, or the flanlike quindim. The meal only comes to an end with the consumption of a strong, sweet shot of – of course – Brazilian coffee.
It should be noted that, even in restaurants, food is generally served family-style – that is, with generous helpings on communal plates. Except in finer restaurants, all the dishes (except dessert) are served at once there are no formal courses.
Bahia & the Northeast
Brazilian restaurants outside of Brazil tend to serve, more specifically Bahian cuisine, perhaps because it’s the most obviously exotic. It developed in the kitchens of the region’s sugar plantations, and its African origins reveal themselves in the three main ingredients: coconut milk; the spicy malagueta pepper; and dende oil, a reddish-orange extraction of west African palm. The delicious seafood stew known as moqueca includes all three and is a classic Bahian speciality. On the streets of Bahia , you can’t escape the smell of acaraje – fritters made with brown beans and shrimp fried in dende oil.
Amazonian cuisine is strongly influenced by the region’s native Tupi, people, who live largely on manioc, freshwater fish, yams and beans, and exotic fruit. Caldeirada is a popular fish stew not unlike bouillabaisse, and pato no tucupi is a regional favorite made with duck, garlic, jambu herb and the juice of both lemons and manioc roots.
The Central West
Occupying the prairielike cerrado, the Central West is dominated by sprawling fazendas (ranches) that produce pork and beef, as well as staples such as corn, rice, kale and manioc. The region’s rivers offer up the meaty dourado fish, the pintado (a type of catfish), and, of course, the infamous piranha. Recipes tend to be simple but delicious, relying on the freshness of local ingredients.
Rio, Sao Paulo & the Southeast
The mountainous state of Minas Gerais offers the most distinctive regional cuisine of the Southeast. Pork is particularly popular, as is the kalelike couve, which is sauteed in oil with garlic and onions. Frango ao molho pardo (chicken stewed in its own blood with vegetables) sounds gruesome but tastes delicious. Queijo minas is a soft, vaguely sweet white cheese that, when served with goiabada (guava paste), makes a refreshing dessert.
Sao Paulo is the gastronomic capital of Brazil , thanks to high levels of disposable wealth and a large Italian community that places a high social value on refined eating. Here you’ll find temples of fine dining as well as humble ethnic restaurants that reflect the city’s dazzling number of Immigrant communities, of whom the Japanese deserve special mention. Forming the largest colony outside Japan , they have made sushi popular throughout Brazil . Note that pizza baked in a wood-burning oven is a Sunday-night tradition.
Rio doesn’t have its own cuisine per se, but as the adopted home of Brazilians of all stripes, it offers excellent food from every region. As the former colonial capital, the Portuguese influence is less adulterated here than elsewhere, evidenced by the popularity of bacalhau (codfish). Ftijoada, a bean-and-meat stew served with rice, farofa, kale and sliced orange, is the city’s contribution to the national cuisine. Because it takes a few hours to cook as well as digest, it is traditionally served on Saturday.
Italian and German food rules the day in the South. The country’s love affair with pasta and beer began here – both have become Brazilian staples. Expect to see lots of sausage and sauerkraut in the German enclaves of Joinville and Blumenau . Brazilian wine, rarely excellent but often quite rood, comes from grapes lovingly imported from Italy and planted in the accommodating soil of Rio Grande do Sul.
As in Argentina , the pampas (grassy plains) of the far south were long dominated by gauchos – Brazilian cowboys who taught the region to love beef above all other meats. Churrasco is better here than anywhere else in the country. The region preserves another cowboy tradition – erva mate in.
DRINKS – Nonalcoholic
Brazilian sucos (juices) are divine. Staples include known quantities such as orange, lime, papaya, banana, passion fruit, carrot, beet, pineapple, melon, watermelon and avocado. Then there are the Amazonian fruits that hardly exist outside Brazil . The berrylike afai is prized for its nutritional value and addictive taste, while guarana (a type of berry) is loaded with caffeinelike stimulants. They defy translation, as do graviola, cupuafu and fruta do conde.
Caldo de cana is extracted directly from lengths of sugarcane, usually with a machine that’s a hand-cranked, multicogged affair. Agua de coco (coconut juice) is available anywhere that it’s hot and where there are people. With a few strokes of a butcher’s knife, vendors open a hole large enough for a straw. It sounds touristy but it’s not – the juice is high in electrolytes, and Brazilians value its rehydrating properties.
Juice bars are around in abundance, even in small towns, and a good-sized glass costs US$0.50 to US$1. In Rio , where juice is a way of life, corner bars can offer 30 or 40 different varieties. The juices may be made from fresh fruit and vegetables or from pulp. Request them sem acucar e gelo or natural, if you don’t want sugar and ice. Juices often have water mixed in; this is almost certain to be purified but if you’re worried about it, you can ask for juices mixed with suco de laranja (orange juice) instead of water, or for a vitamina, which is juice with milk. Orange juice is reaely adulterated.
Brazilians like their coffee as strong as the devil, as hot as hell and as sweet as love. In the morning they take it with milk (cafe com leite). For the rest of the day, it’s cafezinhos, regular coffee served either in a drinking glass or an espresso-sized coffee cup and often presweetened. It is sold in stand-up bars and dispensed free in large thermoses in restaurants, at hotel reception desks and in offices to keep the general population perky the whole day through. Espresso is increasingly available in more upscale establishments, and just about everywhere in Sao Paulo , which boasts a highly evolved coffee culture.
A good cup of tea is harder to come by, but erva mate is a potential alternative. It’s available throughout the country and is usually served cold and cloyingly sweet. Only in the state of Rio Grande do Sul is it drunk hot.
Made from an Amazonian berry, guarana `champagne’ rivals Coca Cola as Brazil’s favorite soft drink. It’s served cold, carbonated and sweet and it’s reputed to have all sorts of health-giving properties.
DRINKS – Alcoholic
Brazilians enjoy their beer served bem gelada (icy cold). In general, a cerveja refers to a 600m1 bottled beer, a`longneck’ is a 300ml bottle, and a cervejinha is a 300ml can. Antartica (ant-okt-chee-kah) and Brahma are the best national brands. Keep your eyes peeled for regional brands including Bohemia from Petropolis , Cerpa from Para , Cerma from Maranhao and the tasty Serramalte from Rio Grande do Sul. For thicker palates, try the stoutlike Caracu or Xingu , sweet black beers from Santa Catarina.
Chope (shop-ee) is a pale blond pilsner draft that’s lighter and generally superior to canned or bottled beer. Antarctica and Brahma produce the two most widespread versions. In big cities you may even find chope escuro, a kind of light stout. Key phrase: Moco, mais um chope, por favor! (Waiter, another draft, please!).
Also called pinga or aguardente, cachafa is a high-proof sugarcane alcohol produced and drunk throughout the country. It can be cheaper than water (literally) or as dear as whisky, and yes, price definitely signals a difference in taste and effect (and after effect!). Velho Barreiro, Ypioca Pitu, Carangueijo, and Sao Francisco are some of the better labels.
The caipirinha is the unofficial Brazilian national drink. Ingredients are simple – cachafa with crushed lime, sugar and ice – but the results are sublime when sipped in the cool of an evening. You can replace the cachafa with vodka (to make a caipirosca) and the lime with a variety o fruit, including strawberries, kiwi, the cherrylike pitanga and the haunting limao de Persia (a light-yellow lime).
Brazilians love to eat (then again who doesn’t?), and holidays and celebrations are another excuse for the hearty consumption of both food and alcohol. Any day off from work is an occasion for churrasco – grilled meats. Many of the gastronomic traditions are borrowed wholesale from European and American culture: turkey at Christmas, chocolate at Easter champagne at the New Year, iced cakes for birthdays and weddings. In addition, pork and lentils augur good luck at the New Year, and during the winter feast days know as Juninas (June saints’ days), cachafa is spiced with cinnamon, cloves and ginger and served warm. Despite the cultural importance of Carnaval, there is not a specific cuisine – alcohol trumps food.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
Eating out in Brazil can mean fried treats at the corner lanchonete (snack bar or greasy spoon); a lunchtime prato feito (ready-to-eat hot meal including rice, beans, a meat dish and salad) at a bar (pub) or botequim (working man’s restaurant); a gorge session at a sit-down rodizio (all-you-can-eat) restaurant; or a la carte dining on white linen.
To eat quickly, cheaply and well, head to a por-kilo restaurant, which, as the name suggests, serves food by weight, and usually costs from US$4 to US$6 per kilogram. Offerings generally include fresh veggies, rice and beans, and grilled meat and fish, plus regional specialities. It’s a great option for travelers, as you don’t have to decipher a menu. Try to get there early ( noon for lunch or 7pm or 8pm for dinner) when offerings are freshest and available in abundance.
Churrascarias are generally rodizio-style and include a salad bar plus meat that’s brought to your table fresh from the grill. Rodizio restaurants wrving pizza and massa (pasta) are also popular and cost between US$3 and US$5.
Lone travelers will be made to feel at home wherever they go. If you went to strike up a conversation, head to the closest corner bar or food stand, where bonhomie is almost certain to abound.
Tipping is not necessary – your bill will include a 10% service charge. In restaurants frequented by tourists, count your change and make sure your check is itemized: Pode discriminar? (Can you itemize?). There is no pressure to turn a table – you can linger as long as you like just about anywhere you go.
In Brazil , you’re never far from a lanchonete, where you can get salgadinhos (savory snacks, usually fried) – also known as tira-gostos and oefiscos – for around US$0.50. Try kibe, which is cracked wheat stuffed with spiced meat then deep fried – it’s both delectable and rib-sticking. Pasteis (dough filled with meat, cheese or seafood then deep-fried) are unbeatable when piping hot. Pdo de queijo (a concoction of cheese and tapioca dough) is also deliciously ubiquitous.
For a few more centavos, you can get a sanduiche, a term that covers a multitude of hot sins from the X-tudo (cheeseburger with everything) to the dependable misto quente (toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich). Cold sandwiches, usually on crustless white bread, are called sanduiche natural.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarianism is very much a minority activity in Brazil . Many Brazilian waiters consider sem carne (without meat) to include such ‘vegetable’ groups as chicken, pork and animal fats, so be very clear when ordering in restaurants. Beware especially the typical black-bean dishes, which are often flavored with meat.
Most cities offer a few all-vegetarian options, but where this is neither convenient nor possible, head to a por-kilo restaurant – they usually offer at least half a dozen different salad, vegetable and bean dishes.
WHINING & DINING
Brazilians love children, and yours will be welcome wherever you go, as long as they’re reasonably behaved. Note that bratty behavior is little tolerated by Brazilian parents, who consider a quick swat far more constructive than mere `time-out.’
Familiar food is available for unadventurous palates just about anywhere you go, from burgers and pizza to grilled cheese sandwiches. Prepackaged baby food is generally available from supermarkets, though not from corner stores.
HABITS & CUSTOMS
Brazilians tend to have a small cafe da manha (breakfast; often shortened to cafe) of coffee with milk and a sweet or savory baked good; a big almoco (lunch), anytime from noon to 3pm; a hearty lanche (late-afternoon snack) of a salgadinho with juice, coffee or beer; and a light jantar (diner) of a soup and/or sandwiches or a smaller recapitulation of lunch usually sometime around 9pm or later. Extended families religiously gather for Sunday lunch, the most important meal of the week. It can last until 5pm or later and may seamlessly blend lanche and jantar. Snacking is perfectly acceptable at any time of the day or night, as is a quick shot of ultrasweet coffee.