One of the more pronounced aspects of Brazilian multiculturalism is the country’s diverse and appetising cuisine. Few are able to resist the enticing smell of feijoada at lunchtime, especially when it’s served with the notorious farofa, a mouth-watering stuffing-like combination of manioc flour, nuts and other preferred ingredients, such as eggs and onions. But Brazilians don’t survive just on feijoada. One of the most traditional and cherished ingredients in Brazilian cooking is cassava root, affectionately known as “mandioquinha“, which is mostly served fried, cooked, or mashed. Using traditional ingredients in new recipes is a certain way.
The famous self service restaurants in Brazil are particularly healthy options, for the wallet too, as there are generally two types of service: comida por quilo (food per kilo), where diners pay according to the weight of their food (excluding the weight of the plate), and the à la carte variety, where all dishes carry a fixed price. Both usually offer a wide variety of dishes to guarantee as much choice as possible, including vegetarian options.
However, the jewel in the crown of Brazilian dining is rodízio (which loosely translates as all-you-can-eat), especially when it comes to eating at a barbecue steakhouse. It works in a similar fashion to most buffet meal deals: each customer pays a set amount and is entitled to eat all they want (drinks are paid separately). However, it is perhaps what you eat and the way it is served which is less common. At barbeque rodízios waiters circulate the tables offering diners an opulent array of delectable cuts of meat and, at your request, they carve the meat of your preference right there at the table. Thanks to a novel set of table signs, customers can dictate to staff when they would like to be offered more. The green side to this small table plaque says “Yes, please”, and when shown, indicates that you would like to continue on your carnivorous venture, whilst red, by virtue of the words “No thank you”, means you are having a pause or are completely satisfied.
This novel dining experience has caught on considerably in recent years, and today there are similar restaurants scattered all over the UK. Much of this success is down to the unique interactive experience that rodízio affords, as well as the abundant flavours on offer. The range of meats can be staggering, ranging from the more common poultry and bovine cuts to, exotic meats like rabbit, frog or alligator, especially in Brazil. Be sure to leave room for afters as there’s always a dessert trolley laden with sweets like brigadeiros, a chocolate delicacy made with condensed milk, cocoa powder and butter, or pudim de leite, Brazil’s answer to crème caramel. Vegetarians need not fret either since these steakhouses always boast a scrumptious salad bar.
Another typically Brazilian way of eating out is at a “boteco”. Botecos are very characteristic bars found in Brazil that usually sell a wide gambit of drinks, mostly alcoholic, and bite-sized snacks, mostly fried. One of the staples is the coxinha, one of the most beloved savoury nibbles amongst Brazilians. In its most recognised form, it is a dumpling made of shredded chicken and encased in a wheat flour dough, which is moulded into the shape of a chicken thigh before being fried. Of similar popularity in such haunts are pastéis (small crispy parcels stuffed with meat, cheese or palm heart), pães de queijo (cheese breads), croquettes and several other goodies.
There are always several central figures behind such gastronomic endeavours, but one of the most crucial is undoubtedly the chef. Today, chefs are gaining increasing recognition thanks to shows like MasterChef, a TV programme that, in short, pits several wannabe chefs against each other like kitchen gladiators. It is thanks to platforms like this that various Brazilian chefs have gained international notoriety, and have gone on to promote lectures and exhibitions about Brazilian gastronomy and participate in (or create) international festivals that share the same objective. Several have created exclusive events relating to Brazilian food, or indeed have opened their own restaurants, both of which further help to propel the internationalisation of Brazil’s unique cuisine.
Another well-documented Brazilian indulgency is coffee, with Brazil being the world’s largest producer and exporter of coffee beans, a position the country has held consecutively over the last 150 years. The history of Brazilian coffee, therefore, is a long one and dates back to the Ciclo do Café (Coffee Cycle), which began in the second half of the eighteenth century. Brazilian coffee beans are second to none, enough even to prompt the legendary singer Frank Sinatra to record a song in 1946 in their honour: “The Coffee Song”, the lyrics to which make on-going reference to the exacerbated consumption of coffee in Brazil.
One of the most common mealtime practices in Brazil, particularly after lunch, is to order a cafezinho (“a small coffee”: an espresso) as a means of helping digestion. You might say that coffee works for Brazilians just like tea works for the British. Unlike the “cafezinho”, which is served in an espresso cup, there are other gourmet coffees available in Brazil, which are usually more expensive and ground using more refined beans. There are though, of course, more day-to-day blends, used mostly to make filtered coffee at home to help wash down a welcome slice of cake in a moment of afternoon leniency.
Among this cast of home-grown Brazilian specialties, there is one that stands out for its freshness amid the oppressive tropical heat: açaí, which is a berry that comes from the Amazon region and is a staple source of nourishment for the region’s inhabitants. You can often find it being sold in kiosks that line Brazilian beaches, as a refreshing antidote to the heat. It is most commonly served in either a frozen form, like an ice cream, or in a juice, and is often accompanied by other fruits, condensed milk and granola. That said, in some regions of Brazil, like Pará and Amazonia, açaí is also used to make savoury sauces that are served as an accompaniment to hot dishes.
In the UK, açaí is still a relatively recent phenomenon, but one that is gaining popularity. The cold and sweet variant, more common in the southeast of Brazil, can be found in specialist retailers in London, and can even be bought online. The salty version might require a little more determination to track down, but the ingredients needed to make it are readily available.
British supermarkets, mostly London-based given the increasing numbers of Brazilians either living in or visiting the city and the sudden emerging hunger for Brazilian cuisine in the capital, have been quick to diversify their offering to accommodate such tastes. Years ago it would have been almost impossible to find some of the products that today are commonplace. These products include black beans, cassava flour, Brazilian wines, cachaça and guaraná. Speaking of wine, the UK is Europe’s principal importer of Brazilian wines, which, according to the companies responsible for collating import data, are popular because they contain a lower alcohol content and are fruitier, hence retain the fresh taste of the grapes.
The caipirinha, in turn, helped spearhead Brazil’s burgeoning interest in artisan beers: micro-brewing. This custom also seems to be spreading its roots to the world of spices. Due to its independent and experimental character, each beer can be brewed to the specific preferences and tastes of its maker. In the same way, Brits can now experiment with uniquely Brazilian flavours, and mix them with their usual ingredients to capture a truly new and differentiated taste. Many of the speciality stores that stock Brazilian products, regardless of whether they are pre-cooked to order or in their crudest form, such as black beans, now offer a home delivery service. It has never been easier to eat tapioca (made with tapioca starch and stuffed with a filling of the cook’s preference, usually cheese or some sweet condiment) or prepare a Brazilian fruit salad.
The typical foods that originate from each region of Brazil form different chapters in this vast gastronomic catalogue, but they are also bolstered by African, German, Italian, Japanese, and Arab influences, to name but a few. In the north, many foods date back to the sustenance of the indigenous tribes that occupied the region before the arrival of the Portuguese. One of the chief protagonists is tacacá, a soup made with tapioca, dried shrimp, pepper and other local condiments.
The Northeast, from the coast to the hinterland, prides itself on a veritable feast of national culinary trademarks. Some examples included sun-dried meat, acarajé (small fritters made with beans, onion, salt and palm oil, and of direct African heritage), fish moqueca (also of African origin, a kind of fish casserole) and rapadura (a hardened sweet made from brown sugar). Northeastern food is so memorable that the great Brazilian romanticist writer, Jorge Amado, makes constant reference to it in his highly revered books.
Pacu soup, a broth made with Pacu fish, paprika, flour, corn starch, tomato, among many other ingredients, is one of the signatures of the Midwest, along with a list of other delicacies from the sea, such as piranha sauce. In addition to fish, the region is famous for many meat dishes given the intensity of local livestock farming.
The states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are long-time contributors to Brazil’s gastronomic pedigree, mainly because they are both home to international cities. But what of Minas Gerais, or Espírito Santo? Minas is the rightful proprietor of the legendary pão de queijo (cheese bread) and doce de leite (a pudding made with milk and sugar), while moqueca capixaba (similar to the fish stew of the Northeast, but made without the use of dendê palm oil and with a unique and special red colouring), is the calling card of Espírito Santo.
Finally, gastronomy in the South has been greatly influenced by German and Italian migrants, an influx that helped establish, for example, the culture of pasta and apple pie dessert. This is Brazil’s barbequing capital and, given the colder climes that can chill the state, southerners are never far from a chimarrão, a hot tea made with mate leaves and sipped from a bomba (bombilla in Portuguese), a metal straw equipped with a filter to prevent the swallowing of any leaf fragments.
Brazilian gastronomy is clearly worthy of applause for its constant evolution and adaptation, and is a welcome prospect for anyone wanting to experience one of the richest cuisines in the world. No matter your nationality, tasting typical Brazilian dishes, prepared by a competent chef, is more than just an experience: it is a lesson in how to connect different perspectives and cultures of the world, through food.
From bar snacks to sophisticated regional plates, the Brazilian menu is extensive and offers a myriad of dining possibilities. Whether it’s a rodízio restaurant, a barbecue at a friend’s house, the restaurants, or a simple boteco, the bottom line is that Brazilian food is popular, and this success is not exclusively a consequence of the people that prepare it. Rather it is the assuredness that when you tuck into a Brazilian favourite you know that it has been prepared with the inherent welcoming spirit of a nation’s indigenous people and nation their enduring heritage.
Photo by Ana Claudia Jatahy