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The Cuisine

Brazilian cuisine comes in many regional varieties but the one truly national dish is feijoada, a black-bean stew that originated with African slaves who used leftovers to make a tasty meal. Traditionally served on Saturdays, the beans are spiced with garlic, onions, and bay leaves and left to stew for hours with a hodgepodge of meats that may include sausage, beef, dried meat, and obscure bits of pork. Accompanied with rice, farofa (manioc flour), slices of orange, and stir-fried cabbage, it's a meal by itself.

Brazil's most distinguished regional cuisine is found in coastal Bahia, a region with very strong African influences. (Most Brazilian slaves arrived first in Bahia, and after slavery was abolished many of them settled in that area.) Bahian cuisine mixes African spices with the fresh and bountiful local ingredients. Bahia's most famous dish is the moqueca, a rich stew made with fresh fish or seafood, coconut milk, lime juice, cilantro, spicy malagueta peppers, and flavored with the oil from a dendê palm, which gives this dish its characteristic red color.

In the Amazon, whatever food does not come from the forest or the river has to be shipped in and is therefore very expensive. Fortunately the region is blessed with a large variety of fish. Cast aside any preconceived notions you may have about freshwater fish. The Amazon fish are delicious -- firm white meat that tastes best just plainly grilled with salt and herbs. Local names for the best fish vary from one part of the Amazon to the next, but look for surubim, pacu, dourado, and pirarucu. The forest also yields a large variety of fruit that are often unknown outside of the Amazon. The best way to try them is just to order something off the juice menu; point if you can't wrap your tongue around Indian names such as cupuaçu, açai, or jabuticaba.

In the South and Southwest of Brazil (the Pantanal, Iguaçu, and the south of Brazil) the cuisine is more European, and as the largest beef-producing region in Brazil, meat is always on the menu. Churrascarias, or Brazilian steakhouses, are everywhere; indeed it's sometimes hard to find anything else to eat. Often churrascarias operate on a rodízio system -- all-you-can-eat meat BBQ. Endless waiters scurry from grill to tables bearing giant skewers of beautifully roasted beef or chicken or pork or sausage, from which they then slice off a succulent few slices onto your plate. The parade of meat continues until you throw up your hands and cry enough. If carnivorous overconsumption doesn't appeal, there are other places to get yourself a fine cut of beef. Neighborhood bars (botequins) and even street vendors also offer barbecued beef, often served with a side of vinaigrette sauce, rice, and farofa.

Also very popular in Brazil is the simple hearty fare from Minas Gerais, a state settled largely by European immigrants. Favorite dishes include Tutu mineiro, Brazil's version of refried beans, served with grilled pork sausage, pork tenderloin, crispy bacon bits, couve mineiro (green cabbage), and a boiled egg. Other dishes include a variety of stews made with chicken or beef, potatoes, carrots, and sometimes pumpkin.

In Rio and São Paulo, the restaurant scene is very cosmopolitan: excellent Japanese restaurants, fabulous Italian, traditional Portuguese, and Spanish food as well as popular restaurants that serve Brazilian food -- rice, black beans, farofa, and steak.

You Say Farofa, I Say . . . Blech --
Shawn says: I never got farofa. What I mean is, I got it with every meal. Really, what is the point? Farofa (flour taken from ground manioc root, then baked with oil) has the dry, crumbly consistency of sawdust -- and not coincidentally, that's what it tastes like. Brazilians painstakingly disguise the flavor, sometimes with raisins and dried fruit, but the end result tastes like . . . sawdust with raisins or dried fruit. Eating it made sense in the days when Brazilians lived in peasant huts; farofa was the sole source of carbohydrates. Like potatoes for the Irish, farofa kept them going. But Brazilian cooking now incorporates lots of carbs -- like rice. Potatoes. French fries. Sometimes all three at once. But no matter how many starches are piled on your plate, farofa will be there to top it off.

Alexandra says: Farofa -- what's not to like? The coarsely roasted flour of the manioc root is the perfect companion to a Brazilian meal. Served plain, farofa's nutty flavor stands up, while allowing it to soak up the juices on your plate only enhances its flavor. Every Brazilian has his or her favorite farofa recipe. My mother makes the best sweet farofa with bananas and raisins; it tastes as delightful as some of the best stuffings I've had. Other cooks prefer a savory version, adding spicy chorizo sausage, olives, or bacon. A feijoada is just not the same without farofa. Next time skip those greasy french fries and add some farofa to your plate. Bon appétit!

Dining Out

Brazilians love to eat out. There is no shortage of eateries, from beach vendors selling grilled cheese and sweets, to lunch-bars serving pastries and cold beers, to fine French cuisine complete with the elegance and pretensions of Paris. Most Brazilians eat a very small breakfast at home -- usually café au lait and some bread -- then go out for lunch. Traditionally, these lunches are full hot meals, but these days you can also find North American-style sandwiches and salads as a lighter alternative. Dinner is eaten late, especially when dining out. Most restaurants don't get busy until 9 or 10pm and will often serve dinner until 1 or 2am. The trick to lasting that long without fainting is to have a lanche or light meal -- often a fruit juice and a pastry -- around 5 or 6 pm.

In Brazil, portions often serve two people, especially in more casual restaurants. Always ask or you may well end up with an extraordinary amount of food. In Portuguese ask, "Serve para dois?" (pronounced Sir-vay p'ra doysh -- "Does it serve two?").

The standard Brazilian menu comes close to what some restaurants label as international cuisine: pasta, seafood, beef, and chicken. Except in Brazil, these are served with a local or regional twist. The pasta may be stuffed with catupiry cheese and abôbora (a kind of pumpkin); the chicken could have maracujá (passion-fruit) sauce. Brazilian beef comes from cows just like in the rest of the world, but in Brazil the cows are open-range and grass-fed, making for a very lean beef which comes in uniquely Brazilian cuts such as picanha (tender rump steak), fraldinha (bottom sirloin), or alcatra (top sirloin). And of course, for side dishes no Brazilian meal is complete without farofa and rice or black beans.

These days you will find more and more kilo (quilo in Portuguese) restaurants. The food is laid out in a large buffet, and at the better ones there's a grill at the back serving freshly cooked steaks, chicken, and sausage. Kilos aren't all-you-can-eat. Rather, you pay by weight (but the quality is much better than at American lunch buffets). If you're not familiar with Brazilian food, it's a great way to see all the dishes laid out in front of you; you can try as little or as much as you like. Even better, they often have a variety of salads and vegetables that are often hard to come by elsewhere in Brazil. The system works as follows: When you enter the restaurant, you're given a piece of paper on which all your orders are recorded. Don't lose this slip or you'll have to pay a ridiculously high penalty. You grab a plate, wander by the buffet and grill, filling up on whatever catches your eye (all items have the same per-kilogram cost, which is usually advertised both outside and inside the restaurant), and then take the plate to the scale to be weighed. The weigher records the charges on your bill, after which you find a table. Normally a waiter will then come by and take your drink order, adding these charges to your tally. On your way out the cashier sums it all up. Tip: Small cups of strong dark coffee (called cafezinhos) are usually served free by the cashier or exit. Look for a thermos and a stack of little plastic cups.

A churrascaria is a steakhouse that operates on the rodízio system, essentially all you can eat -- though you'll pay extra for drinks and dessert. The set price buys you unlimited access to a massive salad-bar buffet, often also including fish and sushi, and the attention of an army of waiters all offering different cuts of meat, sliced directly onto your plate. All the typical and unique Brazilian cuts of beef are on offer, as well as chicken breast, chicken hearts, sausage, and on and on and on.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.