Food in Brazil
Brazilian cuisine is as diverse as its geography and culture. On the other hand, some may find it a half-baked concoction, and everyday dishes can be bland and monotonous. Although there are some fairly unique dishes of regional origin, many dishes have been brought by immigrants from overseas and adapted to local tastes over generations. Italian and Chinese cuisine can often be just as amazing in Brazil as Amazonian cuisine.
The standard Brazilian lunch is called prato feito, with its siblings comercial and executivo. Rice and brown beans in sauce, plus a small steak. Sometimes farofa, spaghetti, vegetables and chips are added. Beef may be replaced by chicken, fish or other.
Excellent seafood can be found in the coastal towns, especially in the north-east.
- Brazil’s national dish is feijoada, a hearty stew of black beans, pork (ears, shanks, chops, sausages) and beef (usually jerky). It is served with rice, garnished with kale and orange slices. It is not served in all restaurants; those that do serve it usually do so on Wednesdays and Saturdays. A typical tourist mistake is to eat too much feijoada the first time. It is a heavy dish – even Brazilians usually eat it sparingly.
- Brazilian snacks, lanches (sandwiches) and salgadinhos (almost anything else), include a wide selection of pastries. Look out for coxinha (fried chicken coated in batter), empada (a tiny cake, not to be confused with empanada – empadas and empanadas are completely different products) and pastel (fried rolls). Another common snack is misto quente, a ham and cheese sandwich pressed and grilled. The pão-de-queijo, a bread roll made of cassava flour and cheese, is very popular, especially in the state of Minas Gerais. Pão-de-queijo and a cup of fresh Brazilian coffee are a classic combination.
- Farofa: cassava flour fried with pieces of bacon and onion; the standard carbohydrate side dish in restaurants, along with white rice.
- Feijão verde : Green beans with cheese au gratin
- Paçoca: minced beef mixed with cassava flour in a pilão (large mortar with a large pestle). Traditional cowboy food
- Pastel: fried dough filled with cheese, minced meat or ham.
- Tapioca (or more precisely “tapioca beiju”): is made from cassava starch, also called tapioca starch. When heated in a frying pan, it bubbles up and becomes a kind of dry, slice-like pancake or cake. Some people serve it folded in half, others roll it up in the shape of a pancake. The filling varies, but it can be prepared sweet or savoury, the most traditional flavours being : Coconut flakes/condensed milk (sweet), beef jelly/charcoal cheese, cheese and butter (salty). More recently, however, it has become a ‘gourmet’ food that needs to be treated creatively; Nutella, chocolate, napolitano (pizza cheese/ham/tomato/ oregano) and shredded chicken breast/catapa cheese are almost standard options nowadays.
- South – Churrasco is Brazilian barbecue and is usually served ‘rodizio’ or ‘espeto corrido’ (all you can eat). Servers carry huge pieces of meat on steel skewers from table to table and cut slices from them onto your plate (use tongs to grip the slice of meat and do not touch the edge of the knife with your cutlery to avoid dulling the edge). Traditionally, you will receive a small block of wood coloured green on one side and red on the other. When you are ready to eat, place the green side up. When you are too full to tell the waiter that you have eaten enough, you put the red side up…..churrascarias) also serve other types of food, so you can go with a friend who does not like meat. While churrascarias tend to be quite expensive places (by Brazilian standards), they are generally much cheaper in the north, centre and rural areas of the country than in the south and big cities, where they are frequented by the less fortunate.
- Mineiro is the “miner’s cuisine” of Minas Gerais, based on pork and beans, with some vegetables. Goiás dishes are similar, but use some local ingredients such as pequi and guariroba. Minas Gerais cuisine is not considered particularly tasty, but it has a “family” touch that is very popular.
- The cuisine of Bahia, on the northeast coast, has its roots across the Atlantic in East Africa and Indian cuisine. Coconut, dende palm oil, hot peppers and seafood are the main ingredients. Tip: hot (“quente”) means lots of pepper, cold (“frio”) means less or no pepper. If you dare to eat spicy food, try acarajé (shrimp-filled fritters) and vatapá (black bean soup to drink).
- Espírito Santo and Bahia have two different versions of moqueca, a delicious tomato-based seafood stew prepared in a special type of clay pot.
- Amazonian cuisine is inspired by indigenous foods, including various exotic fish and vegetables. There is also an amazing variety of tropical fruits.
- Ceará’s food features a wide variety of seafood and is known for having the best crabs in the country. It is so popular that every weekend thousands of people go to Praia do Futuro, in Fortaleza, to eat fish and fried crabs (usually followed by a cold beer).
Brazilian cuisine also has many imports:
- Pizza is very popular in Brazil. In Sāo Paulo, travellers will find the highest rate of pizza restaurants per capita in the country. The variety of flavours is extremely wide, with some restaurants offering over 100 varieties of pizza. It is interesting to note the difference between European “mozzarella” and Brazilian “mussarela”. They differ in taste, appearance and origin, but buffalo mozzarella (“mussarela de búfala”) is also often found. The Brazilian “mussarela”, which tops most pizzas, has a yellow colour and a stronger flavour. In some restaurants, especially in the south, the pizza has no tomato sauce. Other dishes of Italian origin, such as macarrão (macaroni), lasanha and others are also very popular.
- Arabic and Middle Eastern (actually Lebanese) food is widely available. Most options offer high quality and variety. Some types of Middle Eastern food, such as quibe and esfiha, have been adapted and are available in snack bars and fast food outlets around the country. You will also find shawarma (kebab) stands, which Brazilians call “churrasco grego” (Greek barbecue).
- Japanese restaurants in São Paulo serve a lot of tempura, yakisoba, sushi and sashimi. The selection is good and prices are generally very attractive compared to Europe, the US and Japan. Most Japanese restaurants also offer the rodizio or buffet option, with the same quality as if you were ordering from the menu. However, sometimes there is a departure from the original. The same applies to Chinese food, again with some deviations from tradition. Japanese restaurants (or those serving Japanese food) are much more common than Chinese ones and can be found in many Brazilian cities, especially in the state of São Paulo.
- All restaurants add a 10% service charge to the bill, and this is the only tip a Brazilian will ever give. It is also what most waiters make a living from, but it is not compulsory and you can ignore it, although it is considered extremely rude. In some tourist areas they may try to ask you for extra tips. Remember that you will look like a jerk if you over-tip, and stingy and disrespectful if you don’t tip. 5 to 10 reais is considered a good tip.
- There are two types of self-service restaurants, sometimes with both options in one place: All-you-can-eat buffets with barbecue served at the table, called rodízio, or prices by weight (por quilo), very common at lunchtime throughout Brazil. Fill up at the buffet and put your plate on the scale before eating. In the south, there is also the traditional Italian “galeto”, where you are served different types of pasta, salads, soups and meat (usually chicken) at the table.
- Customers are legally allowed to visit the kitchen and see how the food is processed, although this is very unusual and likely to be seen as strange and rude.
- Some Brazilian restaurants serve meals for only two people. Portion sizes may not be listed on the menu, ask the waiter. Most restaurants in this category allow a “half portion” of these plates (meia-porção), at 60-70% of the price. Also, in restaurants, couples often sit next to each other, not across from each other; pay attention to the waiter’s directions or express your preference when seated.
- Fast food is also very popular, and the local versions of hamburgers and hot dogs (“cachorro-quente”, literally translated) are worth trying. Brazilian sandwiches come in many varieties, with ingredients such as mayonnaise, bacon, ham, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, corn, peas, sultanas, chips, ketchup, eggs, pickles, etc. The brave may want to try the traditional full hot dog (ask for a completo), which includes everything on display except the bun and sausage. The ubiquitous X-burger (and its variants X-salad, X-tudo, etc.) is not as mysterious as it sounds: the pronunciation of the letter “X” sounds like “cheese” in Portuguese, hence the name.
- The big chains: The fast-food hamburger chain Bob’s is present throughout the country and has been around almost as long as McDonald’s. There is also a national fast-food chain called Habib’s, which, despite its name, serves pizza as well as Arabic food (the founder is Portuguese, by the way). There is also a national fast food chain called Habib’s, which despite its name serves pizza as well as Arabic food (the founder is Portuguese by the way). Newer additions, though less widespread, are Burger King and Subway.
Drinks in Brazil
Brazil’s national drink is cachaça (cah-shah-sah, also known as aguardente (“burning water”) and pinga), a 40% sugarcane alcohol known to knock out the unwary quickly. It can be enjoyed in almost any bar in the country. The best known production regions are Minas Gerais, where tours of distilleries are offered, and the city of Paraty. Pirassununga is the home of Caninha 51, the best-selling brand in Brazil. Outside Fortaleza, there is a cachaça museum (Museu da Cachaça) where you can learn about the history of the Ypioca brand.
It is common to drink cachaça neat or simply mixed with a little honey or lime juice in the North East, but the strength of cachaça can be hidden in cocktails like the famous caipirinha, where it is mixed with sugar, lime juice and ice. The use of vodka instead of cachaça is called caipiroska or caipivodka; with white rum, it is a caipiríssima; and with sake, it is a caipisaque (not in all regions). Another interesting concoction is called capeta (“devil”), made with cachaça, condensed milk, cinnamon, guarana powder (a mild stimulant) and other ingredients that vary by region. If you like brandy or grappa, try an aged cachaça. This deep, complex, golden-coloured spirit is nothing like the ubiquitous clear liquor you see more often. A fun excursion is to visit a ‘still’, a local distillery, of which there are thousands throughout the country. Not only can you see how the alcohol is made from raw cane sugar, but you’ll probably get a better price.
Brazilian whisky is worth trying! It is actually 50% imported scotch – the malt component – and about 50% Brazilian grain alcohol. Don’t be fooled by American-sounding names like “Wall Street”. This is not bourbon. Good value and indistinguishable from the usual British blends.
While imported alcohol is very expensive, many international brands are produced under licence in Brazil, making them widely available and fairly cheap. You can buy tax-free alcohol after landing at Brazilian airports, but it is usually more expensive than buying outside airports.
Beer in Brazil has a respectable history due to German immigrants. Most brands of Brazilian beer tend to be much less thick and bitter than German, Danish or English beer. Over 90% of the beer consumed in Brazil is Pilsner, and it is usually consumed very cold (close to 0°C). The most popular national brands are Brahma, Antarctica and Skol. Traditional brands include Bohemia, Caracu (a stout), Original and Serra Malta (another stout). They are easy to find in bars and worth trying, but they are generally more expensive than the popular beers. There are also top quality national beers that are only available in certain bars and special supermarkets; if you want to try a good Brazilian beer, look for Baden Baden, Colorado, Railroad, Petra, Theresopolis and others. There are also international beers produced by national breweries such as Heineken and Stella Artois, which taste slightly different from the original beers.
There are two ways to drink beer in bars: on draught or in bottles. Cask lager is called a ‘SHOH-pee’ and is usually served with an inch of foam, but you can complain to the barman if the foam is consistently thicker than that. In bars, the waiter usually collects empty glasses and bottles from the table and replaces them with full ones until you ask him to stop, on a ‘tap’ loading system. For bottled beer, the bottles (600ml or 1l) are shared among all guests and poured into small glasses instead of being drunk straight from the bottle. Brazilians like their beer almost ice cold – so beer bottles are often kept in an insulated polystyrene container on the table to maintain the temperature.
Rio Grande do Sul is the main wine-producing region. There are a number of wineries open to visitors and wine tastings, as well as wineries that sell wine and fermented grape juice. One such winery open to visitors is the Salton Winery, located in the town of Bento Gonçalves. The São Francisco Valley, on the border of the states of Pernambuco and Bahia, is the youngest wine region in the country. Brazilian wines tend to be fresher, fruitier and less alcoholic than, for example, French wines. Popular brands such as Sangue de Boi, Canção and Santa Felicidade and others priced below R$6.00 are generally considered junk.
In Minas Gerais, look for licor de jabuticaba (jabuticaba liqueur) or vinho de jabuticaba (jabuticaba wine), an exquisite purple-black drink with a sweet taste. Jabuticaba is the name of a small black grape-like fruit from Brazil.
Coffee and tea
Brazil is known all over the world for its strong, high-quality coffee. Coffee is so popular that it can give its name to meals (just like rice in China, Japan and Korea): in Brazil, breakfast is called café da manhã (morning coffee), while café com pão (coffee with bread) or café da tarde (afternoon coffee) refers to a light afternoon meal. Cafezinho (small coffee) is a small cup of strong, sweet coffee, usually served after the meal in restaurants (sometimes free, just ask politely). In high-end restaurants, bottled filter coffee is replaced by stronger espresso cups.
Chá, or tea in Portuguese, is most often found in its Assam version (orange, light in colour). Some of the more specialised tea shops and cafés also offer Earl Gray and green tea.
Mate is a tea-like brew with a very high caffeine content. The roasted version, often served chilled, is consumed throughout the country, while chimarrão (also known as maté in neighbouring Spanish-speaking countries) is the hot, bitter equivalent found in the south and is popular with gaúchos (inhabitants of Rio Grande do Sul). Tererê is a cold variant of chimarrão, common in Mato Grosso do Sul and the state of Mato Grosso.
Nothing beats coconut water (água de coco) on a hot day. (Emphasis on the first o, otherwise it translates as “poo” (cocô)). It is usually sold as coco gelado in the coconut itself, drunk through a straw. Ask vendors with machetes to cut the coconut in half so you can eat the flesh after drinking the water.
If you want a Coke in Brazil, ask for Coca or Coca-Cola, because “Coke” means “glue” in Portuguese.
Guaraná is a soft drink made from the guaraná berry, native to the Amazon. The main brands are Antarctica and Kuat, the latter belonging to Coke. Pureza is a lesser-known Guaraná soft drink that is particularly popular in Santa Catarina. There is also a “Guaraná Jesus” which is popular in Maranhão. Almost every region of Brazil has its own local varieties of guaraná, which may differ from the standard “guaraná” for better or worse. If you travel to the Amazon, be sure to try a cold “Baré”, which has been bought out by “Antarctica” due to its popularity in Manaus and is increasingly available throughout northern Brazil.
Tubaína is a soft drink that used to be very popular among Brazilians (especially those born in the 70s, 80s and early 90s) and is now extremely difficult to find. It used to be mass-produced by “Brahma” before it was focused solely on beers. If you find a place that sells it, try it.
Mineirinho (or Mate Couro) is also a popular soft drink made from guaraná and a typical Brazilian leaf called Chapéu de Couro. Although most Brazilians say it tastes like grass, older people (+70 years) claim that this drink has medicinal properties.
Fruit juices are very popular in Brazil. In some cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, there are juice bars on almost every street corner.
- Acai (a fruit from the Amazon) is delicious and nutritious (rich in antioxidants) and is widely consumed in all countries. In the Amazon, it is used as a supplement to the daily diet and is often eaten with rice and fish as the main meal of the day. Outside the Amazon, it is usually drunk in combination with guarana powder (a stimulant) and a banana to help you recover after a long night of partying. It is served cold and has the consistency of soft ice cream. Acai ice cream is also available.
- Passion fruit (be careful if you have an active day as it has a relaxing effect)
- Caju (cashew fruit) and
- Garapa: freshly squeezed sugar cane juice
- Mangoes are also a popular fruit juice.
- Vitamina: Milkshake with fresh fruit
Brazilians have great taste when it comes to mixing fruit juices.