Any conversation about Brazilian spices should start by knowing that the majority dishes are based around simple, fresh local ingredients that are affordable. There’s nothing too fancy about it.
Brazil is one of the largest countries in the world. And their food culture is among the most diverse you will find anywhere. But when most of us think of food south of the border. We tend to focus on Mexican food and the spicy peppers and unique ingredients used in that style of cooking.
The good news is that Brazlian spices are all pretty common. They are heavily based on many of the classic european seasonings most are already familiar with. And if you already have some basic Mexican spices in your pantry then you’re in luck. Brazilian spices are similar but without as much spiciness and heat.
Brazilian Spices – Origins and Influences
Many of the spices that are used in Brazilian cooking familiar to the outside world were introduced by the Portuguese and the later arrivals, but there are dozens of berries, nuts, herbs and oils that are local. Known examples include Brazilian Mint, Pinhaos, Urucum, various local chilies (Piementas), Pequi and Dendil Oil.
Spices are used in drinks and desserts as garnish. In a number of regions, the emphasis is on the meat itself and not spices – a simple salt rub may be sufficient for a steak to be prepared for the grill.
22 Brazilian Herbs and Spices
Brazilian food uses condiments and sides that have been popularized around the world. We list the most common herbs and spices below.
1. Salt (Sal)
It may seem strange to list salt on top of an exotic spice list, but many Brazilian dishes are prepared with minimal spices other than salt and lemon.
2. Cinnamon (Canela)
Brazilians use cinnamon, esp. in powdered form, to provide a sweet and spicy contrast to milder flavored dishes and desserts. Cinnamon is used in Frango assado and two traditional puddings, Curao and Arroz doce tradicional.
3. Annatto (Urucum)
Annatto has a slight anise-like flavor with some peppery heat. Its most distinctive feature is the bright red color it imparts to many Brazilian dishes.
4. Clove (Cravo-da-India)
These aromatic flower buds are tiny black sticks with a knob-like head, releasing a lingeringly sweet yet pungent flavor. The Portuguese introduced its use to Brazil. Cloves are now used in a variety of sweets and pastries, as in the Middle East, but also soups and stews.
5. Bay Leaves (Louri)
The pleasant aroma of dried Laurel Bay Leaves is used for flavoring a variety of meat and fish dishes, as well as to make Brazil’s famous carioca bean dishes. Bay leaves aromas infuse milder flavors or to create a counter in spicier dishes. Many dishes described below have 1 to 3 bay leaves dropped in for flavor.
6. Cumin Powder (Cominho)
Brazilian cuisine frequently utilizes cumin’s earthy flavors and hint of bitterness to offset stronger, spicier flavors. Two stew dishes that use cumin are cabrito ao molho and barreado.
7. Cilantro (Coentro)
Brazil is not as well known for the use of cilantro as say, Mexico, but its use is widespread along the Atlantic Coast and the northern parts of the country, such as Bahia. Whole leaves and shoots of cilantro are frequently chopped up and used as garnish in salads and soups, as well as some meat and seafood dishes (such as the salted cod fish Bacalao).
8. Garlic (Alho)
Brazilian cooking uses garlic, a Portuguese favorite, as much as anywhere else in the world. Traditional dishes such as Feijocada and Refogado are replete with the flavor of garlic.
9. Onion (Cebola)
Onions are used extensively in cooking all over Brazil.
10. Parsley (Salsa)
After salt, garlic and onion, parsley and oregano may be two spices used most often. For example, Coriander is used north of the Minas Gerais, while parsley is used in the South. The Japanese influence comes into play in terms of the use of parsley.
11. Oregano (Oregano)
Oregano use in Brazilian cuisine has come from its Italian and Arab influences. It is used in pizza and parmigiana, for example.
12. Turmeric (Curcuma)
Turmeric came from India but is grown in a small area of North Central Brazil called Goias. Ground yellow turmeric powder is used in a wide variety of egg, meat and fish dishes. The yellow coloring it imparts allows it to be substituted for saffron in many cases, in fact, many Brazilians rarely see saffron and think that turmeric is one and the same. Interestingly, unlike Indian dishes where turmeric is mixed in with a wide variety of other spices, certain Brazilian dishes use turmeric on a stand-alone basis – releasing its brilliant gold color and flavor onto the dish.
13. Ginger Powder (Gengibre)
Ginger originated in South Asia but quickly spread throughout the world. The Portuguese brought it to Brazil, where the delicious root is grown on mountaintops and enjoyed in a great variety of dishes, drinks and desserts.
14. Fennel Seeds and Anise (Erva-Doce)
The leaves, buds and shoots of fennel, an anise scented herb, are used extensively in lamb dishes, but also used with other meats and fish. Anise itself came to Brazil via the Portuguese and Africans.
15. Mint (Hortela)
With its intense flavor and fresh taste, mints are used in salads, appetizers, cold juices, and stuffed vegetables. Mint is also used in lamb dishes. Two common uses are in Brazilian Beef Kibbe and Brazilian Mojitos, an alcoholic drink with white run, mint and fresh lime. Brazilian Mint Sea is also famous for its pain reducing and healing properties – there have been several scientific studies on this.
16. Black Peppercorn (Pimenta de Reino)
India introduced the world to Black Peppercorn. Black Peppercorn adds an intense aroma, heat and flavor to any dish. Ground Black Pepper and peppercorn are both used extensively in Brazilian cuisine, though not as extensively as in some other cuisines.
17. Pepper and/or Hot Sauce (Pimenta)
Brazilians, especially from the North, love hot and spicy food. Green and red chilis are popular as are chili sauces like molho picante.
18. Paprika (Colorau)
Paprika powder, with its mild chili flavor with a hint of sweetness and lots of flavor, is a favorite of Italian and Mediterranean style cooking in Brazil.
19. Nutmeg (Noz Moscada)
The use of nutmegs, the inner fruit of the mace plant, is inspired from Portuguese and European roots. Sweet and aromatic, a pinch of nutmeg adds flavor to selected dishes. Their wider use is in a number of desserts and hot drinks, though a pinch of nutmeg may be added to bread, soups and some curries.
20. Giant Brazilian Pine Nuts (Pinhao)
Pinhao is sometimes called Brazil’s pine nut on steroids. While it is found inside pine cones like other varieties, Brazilians pine nuts come from the Araucaria pine, which are typically only found in the Southern Hemisphere. Pine nuts have been used in Brazilian cooking since long before the arrival of the Europeans. Pinhao is 4-6 times the size of European pine nuts, dark brown in color and has significantly stronger and sharper taste. It is used in a wide variety of foods and also used to make pinhao wine. Festa Nacional do Pinhão is a food festival in the south, featuring various dishes made of Brazilian Pine Nuts.
21. Allspice (Pimente de Jamaica)
Made from the dried berries of the Pimenta dioica plant, the flavor of allspice is similar to cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. It is used widely in Brazilian spice mixes for meat, vegetable and sweet dishes.
22. Other Herbs and Spices
A number of other herbs, such as Alecrim (Rosemary), Salva (Sage), Endro (Dill), Cebolinha (Chive), Manjericao (Basil Leaves), Cardamomo (Cardamom Pods) and Tomilho (Thyme) are found in many places in Brazil, but their use is limited to a select number of dishes and desserts (usually with strong Italian, Spanish, Japanese or Mediterranean influences) and as occasional garnish.
Most of the spices named above are staple additions to a wide mix of Brazilian dishes (see some examples below). They are also used in combination as seasoning blends as outlined next.
9 Brazilian Seasoning Blends and Cooking Oils
A number of the herbs and spices mentioned above are used in combinations similar to the spice mixes that are common in Asia and the Middle East.
1. Brazilian Seasoning Blend
This blend contains cumin, ginger, salt, garlic, onion, black pepper, oregano, bay leaves, coriander leaf, allspice, paprika, cinnamon, pepper and chili. It is used primarily on roasted meats, as a dry rub or as primary seasoning. Here’s a recipe.
2. Bahian Seasoning (Tempero Baiano)
This Bahian seasoning mix mainly consists of oregano, parsley, white pepper, cayenne pepper and cumin, mixed in with salt. It is used to season meat, fish and veggies.
3. Curry (Ceril)
Curry powder is usually a potent mix of any number of spices. Typical spices used in the original base include Ginger, Garlic, Turmeric and Chili Powder, though other ingredients such as Cumin and Coriander may also be mixed in.
4. Portuguese Dry Rub
This is used for a number of dishes that are baked or roasted, mostly white meat based, such as Frango Assado. The main ingredients are garlic powder, sweet paprika, black pepper, cumin and salt. If spicy, add Cayenne pepper or piri piri sauce. Here’s a recipe.
5. Spicy Chili Sauces (Molho Apimentado/Molho Picante)
These are spicy chili pastes made of pepper which are either included in dishes or served on the side to be added. Conserva en pimento (Picked Chilis) are also a favorite condiment.
6. Palm Oil (Azeite-de dende or Dendil Oil)
Dendil oil is made from the inside of the fruit of the oil palm tree and is used extensively to cook fried dishes. It is reddish in color, thick, with a nutty flavor and floral scents. It is somewhat similar to olive oil
7. Olive Oil (Azeite)
Olive oil is used as the prime cooking medium in Brazilian cuisine, especially given the strong Italian, Spanish and Mediterranean influence.
8. Other Oils Commonly Used
Other oils that are commonly used in Brazilian cooking include Canola Oil, Sunflower Oil and Corn Oil.
9. Butter (Manteiga)
Regular butter is used in rice and other dishes for flavor or slathered onto hot bread.
Conclusion…Spice Up Your Life Brazilian Style!
The rich variety of Brazilian dishes should not mask the country’s zeal for producing fresh food with the minimum possible amount of spices or heavy flavors. Tasty, fresh and energizing…those are the most common feelings used to describe Brazilian cuisine. Enjoy these dishes at home and even more if you get a chance to visit Brazil.