South America’s largest country, Brazil is an amalgam of peoples, cultures, and flavors. The country’s regional cuisines are a function of its cultural diversity. Beginning with the native Guarani, Tupi, and Arawak peoples, Brazil saw in influx of Portuguese colonists and African slaves in the fourteenth century. Later there were waves of German, Japanese, Italian, Syrian, and Lebanese immigrants.
Traversing Brazil’s more than eight-million-square kilometers, a visitor encounters ingredients and landscapes that speak to the country’s diversity. Consider the Amazon. The world’s largest river provides an endless habitat for rare fish and exotic culinary ingredients like the robust ivory-colored pupunha hearts of palm, revered by top chefs; or jambu, a green used in regional soups like Tacacá that produces a numbing sensation in the mouth. Super-fruits harvested from the depths of the Amazon are common fixtures on Brazilian tables. What apples and oranges are to the U.S., cajú, acerola, passion fruit, acaí, and jabuticaba are to Brazil.
East of the Amazon, the dry and arid plains of Brazil’s Sertão are a mecca for sun-dried, jerked, and salted meats. Other ingredients like manteiga de garrafa, a Brazilian ghee; a spiny cucumber cousin called maxixi; and specialty manioc flours called farinhas; play an important role in the region’s culinary traditions. In such an unforgiving landscape, nothing goes to waste—evidenced by iconic dishes like mocoto, a stew of slowly simmered calf bones that is a legacy of the region’s Afro-Brazilian heritage.
Bahia: Afro-Brazilian Traditions
Following the Atlantic coastline southward, one encounters the rich and soulful food of Bahia. Defined by its music, dance, food, and religion, the Bahian city of Salvador is known for its distinctive clay pot stews and street foods evolving out of colonial plantation kitchens. Ingredients like dried shrimp, farinha, dendê oil, okra, malagueta peppers, and coconut milk feature prominently in the region’s cooking. Many of Bahia’s rural communities still produce their own dendê oil and farinha, taking pride in the artisanal production process of these iconic Bahian ingredients.
On the streets of Salvador, fried fradinho bean fritters known as acarajé perfume the air. Women dressed in white called baianas de tabuleiro, peddle the fritters all hours of the day and night. The dress and foods are symbols of Candomble, a religion fusing African and Catholic beliefs that keeps culinary traditions alive with constant offerings of food and drink to its patron saints.
The Moquecas of Bahia
Few comfort foods come as close to nirvana as the moquecas of Bahia—clay pot seafood stews thickened with coconut milk, and seasoned with dendê oil, yellow onion, tomato, green bell pepper, and cilantro. Whether it’s freshly caught fish like cavala, shrimp, octopus, and lobster, or homemade coconut milk and dendê oil, the secret to a perfect moqueca lies in the freshness of the ingredients.
São Paulo Markets
At the Mercado Municipal, with its vintage stained glass and turn of the century architecture, we get an introduction to the ingredients that stock the Brazilian pantry.
Ingredients that are evidence of Portuguese and indigenous roots include salted pork and beef products like air-dried cuts of carne seca—essential for making a hearty meat and black bean stew called feijoada complete— and manioc-based products—used in making farinhas, farofas, polivilhos, and tapiocas. Vibrantly colored hot peppers and pimentos fill the market stall with Crayola crayon colors, ranging from the fiery red-and-green malagueta pepper and bright yellow cumari do pará to the fingerlike red/orange dedo de moça pepper and pointy candy apple red pimenta biquinho—whose name was derived from its resemblance to a bird’s beak. Regardless of the variety, Brazil’s hot peppers are used sparingly. They are often combined with vinegar, then then bottled and served as a condiment with the country’s regional cuisines.
Rio Street Foods
Visitors to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro enjoy the dramatic backdrop of coastal topography and the tumultuous, azure waters of the Atlantic. They are a perfect foil for beach-loving locals who refer to themselves as “cariocas.” Here they relish their street foods, like grilled queijo coalho, barbecued prawns, codfish pasteis, and refreshing coconut water served au naturel. Chope, an unpasteurized draft beer; and Caiprinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail—made with fresh lime juice and a rum-like distillation called cachaça—are permanent fixtures on Rio’s beaches.
Churrasco: Brazilian Gaucho-style Barbecue
Churrasco is Brazil’s version of cowboy barbecue invented by the gauchos—Brazilian horsemen who herded cattle in the Rio Grande do Sul region of Southern Brazil. Churrasco was originally a method of spit roasting cuts of meat by the fire.
Today, steakhouse-style restaurants continuing this tradition of cowboy cooking are known as churrascarias. Enormous automated charcoal and wood rotisseries have replaced the outdoor fire pits, but the slow roasting and basting process remains much as it was nearly two centuries ago.
A Cultural Rite of Passage: Feijoada Completa
Any discussion of Brazil’s iconic dishes is incomplete without an in-depth look at the country’s national dish—feijoada completa. Originating in Bahia, feijoada is now found in every corner of Brazil. It is more than just a bean stew; it is a cultural rite of passage. Cariocas, Paulistas, Mineiras, and Baianos will all tell you their version is the best.
Feijoada completa refers to the “whole meal,” of stewed beans cooked with 11 different types of smoked or cured pork meats, sausages, and carne de sol. Every imaginable part of the pig is fair game in a traditional feijoada, but the trotters are essential as they thicken the stew with their natural gelatins. Slowly simmered for five–six hours, the ingredients produce rich flavors that are perfectly paired with side dishes like garlic-sautéed collard greens, fried manioc root, crisp pork cracklings known as torresmo, Brazilian white rice, preserved malagueta peppers, and orange slices.