I absolutely love brazilain food, but taking on the challenge of making a guide for this delicious cuisine turned out to be more difficult than I had originally expected.
I’m honestly shocked that there isn’t more conversation around Brazilain food culture. I think it’s one of the most-underrated cuisines in the world. Surprisingly, there are not many resources about it available online. (Until now!)
In the U.S. most people are familiar with the now ubiquitous Brazilian steakhouse. You can find them all over the country. And while these carnivore buffets would make a viking feast look like a weight watchers meeting, these eateries rarely offer little in terms of variety or depth.
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world by landmass. And the seventh largest country by population. Its biodiverse habitats yield a vast array of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seafood and meats. As a result, Brazilians have a diverse food culture with culinary influences developed in its various ecosystems and sub-cultures around the country. But no one is talking about this amazing cuisine?
It’s important to understand that wide-spread poverty around the country ensures that many popular Brazialian dishes depend on naturally and cheaply available ingredients. As a result, Brazilians show a preference for fresh food that is prepared daily.
Let’s take a closer look at what you can find being cooked up in traditional Brazilian kitchens. To do that we’ll start with the origins of brazilian food culture.
Brazilian Food Origins, Influences and Traditions
Brazilian cuisine, as currently known, has evolved for over a thousand years among the native Amerindian populations. While influences from such diets still remain in strong in some regions, especially around the Amazon Rainforest, some parts of the Amazon River eco-system and the central region (e.g., around Brasilia), the picture changed dramatically with the “discovery” of Brazil and subsequent colonization by the Portuguese, migrations by other Europeans and a thriving slave trade that brought in emigrants from Africa.
Currently, the culture is a mix of the natives and Portuguese, along with a whole host of other influences, including but not limited to Italian, Spanish, German, Polish, African, Japanese, Chinese, Syrian and Lebanese. Each of these cultures have imparted their own cuisines and spices into Brazil. Plus, the seafaring Portuguese ensured that spices from all over the world showed up in Brazil, especially in the coastal areas.
Brazilian food is focused around freshness and availability. While standard forms of dishes may be presented as a “national” recipe, there are many regional variations of the same.
Steaks, seafoods, fresh fruits and cool drinks define Brazilian diets. Amerindian inhabitants in the rainforest and upper reaches of the Amazon prefer a diet heavy in grains, nuts and fresh vegetables, but abundant fish and game is also available. Delicious breads and fresh fruits, such as mango, papaya, guava, oranges and passion fruit, are available daily in the local markets.
While it may seem that Brazilians continue to eat various meals involving rice and beans (with beef or pork) as their main course, there is a lot of variety. Brazilian dishes typically fall into one of the following categories: Beans and Rice; Stew; Grilled Steaks or Strips (Fish, Steak, Chicken etc.); Casserole; Fritters; Bread and Dessert. Salads and Pastries, along with fresh fruits and a variety of cool, fruity drinks are also popular. Street food is everywhere.
Brazilian Food Culture is Driven by Strong Regional Influences
Brazil is a vast country, the largest in South America and the fourth largest in the world. The huge mixture of cultures over the past 500 years means that cuisines from every continent have meshed into the potpourri that is Brazil.
The diversity of the cuisine is huge, but some broad influences are as follows:
1. Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo
These large cities lie on the Atlantic Coast of Brazil and are known for their abundant seafood and red meat. Given their touristy nature, they are also a Mecca for street food like Vatapa served with Acaraje, or Pastel.
2. Southern Brazil (Curitiba and Porto Alegre)
These Southern cities have strong European influence, along with prime cuts of meat from cattle and pig farming. Accordingly, steaks are popular fare, often marinated and rubbed with nothing more than salt, such as the Picanha described below. There are also a lot of pizzas and breads available. Brazilian pizza does not use much tomato paste and is known for its wide variety of toppings.
3. Central Brazil (Cuiaba, Brasília and Belo Horizonte)
This area was not exposed to widespread Western or other influences till Brasilia became the new capital in the middle of the 20th century. As such, this region retained most of its Amerindian influences. The large wetlands in the area provide abundant fish and game. Fresh fish, carne seca (beef jerky) and plantains are staples of the diet in this region.
4. Northeastern Brazil (Fortaleza, Natal, Bahia and Recife)
This region is strongly influenced by African (and some Indian) cooking styles. Among popular street food here are Acaraje. This area is also known for the liberal use of tempero baiano.
5. The Rainforest Region (Manaus)
This Northern Region has some typical dishes that are not as prevalent elsewhere in Brazil. Fish, either grilled or served in tomato sauce or coconut milk, forms a big part of the diet. Their most popular dish is Pato no tucupi (Duck in Yellow Sauce), served during the Cirio de Nazare celebrations. Tucupi sauce is made from the root of the local starchy vegetable, manioc and is extremely toxic till it’s boiled for hours on end. This area is also known for its many exotic fruits.
Popular Brazilian Dishes (and the Spices They Use)
What is Brazilian food known for? The dishes chosen below can usually be found in Brazilian restaurants, home kitchens and on street corners throughout the country. The preparations are not elaborately described – the main focus is on the specific spices used. Take a look at this article for a complete list of Brazlian spices commonly found in kitchens throughout Brazil.
1. Feijoada (Brazilian Black Beans Stew)
This hearty and spicy stew is sometimes called the national dish of Brazil and there are as many variations as there are regions or cities. A number of fresh, smoked and salted meats are added – spicy sausages can increase the hot flavors. Beef and pork are both traditional. The traditional version is cooked in virgin olive oil with stuffed tomatoes, salt and a few bay leaves. Regional styles may add extra chilis, black pepper, a little garlic and such flavors. The dish is typically served with rice and collard greens.
2. Feijão tropeiro (Bacon, Pork and Eggs, Mixed with Greens)
This mouth-watering dish comes from Minas Gerais, a state in Southeastern Brazil. It is made with collard greens, eggs, carioca beans, bacon, pork (calabresa sausage and others) and cassava flour and seasoned with onions, garlic, manioc flour, chopped parsley, scallions, salt and pepper. Here’s a recipe.
3. Picanha (Brazilian Rump Steak)
This is an example of prime cuts of Brazilian steak, served with the outside charred and the inside pink, which has practically no spice added with the exception of strong kosher salt. It’s all in the grilling and the meat.
4. Refogado (Basic Brazilian Sauce)
This is the classic Brazilian style of cooking, which starts with frying garlic and onion in olive oil or lard. Other ingredients include chopped tomato, pimento or paprika and 1 or 2 bay leaves. The main ingredients, such as pork or beans, can be dropped into the sauce after being cooked, either separately or in the sauce itself.
5. Moqueca (Fish Stew)
This delicious dish, made with fresh fish, tomatoes, onions and coriander (fresh cilantro bits) is served in different versions across Brazil. Coconut milk is sometimes added. The soup is served piping hot in a clay pot.
6. Bacalao (Salted Cod)
The traditional Portuguese version is made with salt cod, potatoes, onions, hard boiled eggs, olives and a ton of olive oil. The Brazilian version adds in chopped cilantro as a flavorful garnish.
7. Barreado (Beef Stew)
This recipe calls for cubed beef and beef broth, into which is mixed garlic, cumin, onions, tomatoes, fresh parsley, dried oregano, chopped scallions, 1 bay leaf, ground black pepper and kosher salt. Bacon bits are sometimes added.
8. Cabrito ao Molho (Stewed Baby Goat)
This dish originated in the Northeastern state of Piaui. The basic recipe calls for braising baby goat meat pieces in sauce (either tomato or coconut milk). The stew adds in garlic, powdered cumin, tomato paste, onions, vegetable oil, green bell pepper, scallions, salt and pepper. The stew is garnished with fresh limes and cilantro.
9. Frango assado (Brazilian Roast Chicken)
The classic Frango Assado uses either fryer chicken or large roasting chicken, with Portuguese Dry Rub (see ingredients above), along with onion, cinnamon, hot sauce, baby carrots, olive oil, margarine and a cup of white wine. The chicken is roasted at 4000 in a preheated oven.
10. Brazilian Style Carioca Beans
Carioca beans are a Brazilian staple that can be cooked in olive oil with garlic, onions, salt and bay leaves. The bay leaves are discarded before the dish is served. Slices of bacon are often added.
11. Brazilian Beef Kibbe (Brazilian Ground Beef Bulgur Croquettes)
This dish has strong Middle Eastern (Syrian and Lebanese) roots. Lean ground beef is mixed with garlic, mint leaves, dried oregano, red onion, yellow onion and scallion. Fresh lemon juice, hot sauce and mustard are often squeezed into the batter of Bulgur. Cayenne and black pepper are added, along with kosher salt. Yogurt is mixed along with olive oil, and the croquettes are fried in canola oil.
12. Vatapa (Shrimp Stew)
This thick stew is made from shrimp, ground nuts or peanuts, bread, coconut milk, mixed in with flour or manioc flour, smeared in dendil oil and served as a paste with rice. Onions, tomatoes, ginger, okra and chilies are also added. This dish originates in Bahia – the shrimp can be replaced by cod, chicken or vegetables.
13. Acaraje (Brazilian Black Peas Fritters)
Acaraje is often served as Brazilian street food or along with Vatapa and rice. The main dish consists of black peas, mashed with chopped onions, seasoned with salt and pepper and then deep fried in dendil oil.
14. Baiao de Dois (Rice with Black Peas)
This Brazilian version of a pilaf is made with rice and black peas and is popular in the North and North-east. There are many variations, but the basic ingredients also include pork, curd cheese, bacon, onion, garlic and oil.
15. Galinhada (One Pot Chicken and Rice)
Made in Minas Gerais and Goiás, this was a Portuguese dish prepared with rice, onions, bell pepper, tomato paste, garlic and peas. Other spices include parsley, and lemon juice. In Goias, turmeric, chili pepper and pequi (souari nuts) are added.
16. Empadao (Chicken Pie)
The thin, flaky crust wraps around casseroled chicken, which is mixed in with vegetables such as corn, hearts of palm and peas. Beef or shrimp could be substituted. The main spices used are flour, unsalted butter, whole eggs, onion, fresh garlic, diced tomatoes, scallions, tomato paste, salt and black pepper. Dry white wine may be mixed in. Olive oil is typically used to fry.
17. Pastel (Brazilian Pastry)
This is the most popular Brazilian street food – deep fried savory pastries that could be stuffed with cheese, chicken, shrimp, beef or hearts of palm. The dough is crisper than Empadaos, closer to a spring roll. The ingredients include chicken bouillon, onion, scallions, garlic salt, oregano, chili powder, lime, cornstarch, tomato paste, black pepper and salt. Both vegetable oil and lard is added, along with baking powder and flour.
18. Curao (Green Maize Pudding)
Made from maize (corn), milk and sugar, this dish has a custard-like consistency. This is a traditional dish served at the Fiestas juninas – the Brazilian winter festivals in the months of June and July. Butter and salt are added to taste, but one of the main features is the cinnamon sprinkled on top.
19. Arroz Doce Traditional (Rice Pudding)
Like curao, the traditional rice puddings made in Brazil traditionally have cinnamon sprinkled on top.
20. Caipirinha (Brazil’s National Cocktail)
This drink is prepared like a mojito, except the main alcoholic ingredient is the Cachaça spirit found locally. Mint leaves, lime wedges and sweet syrup are added to taste.
There are variations of many of the dishes outlined above.
Hopefully, now you agree that Brazilian food is worth taking notice. The vast array of amazing traditional cuisines packed with flavors is rising in popularity. Give some of these dishes a try and you’ll understand why Brazil is more than just the BBQ.