Brazil, home of the great Amazon river, the massive Pantanal wetland, tropical rainforest, pampas grasslands, and glorious beaches, is the world’s 5th largest country. South America’s only Portuguese speaking nation, Brazil occupies almost half the continent, including a huge length of Atlantic coast.
Brazil’s cuisine reflects the diversity of its climate and cultural history. Until the Portuguese colonizers arrived in 1500, Brazil was populated by Indian tribes. The Portuguese exported brazilwood and, soon after, sugar. When local labour proved unsatisfactory in the plantations, slaves were imported from Africa; more when gold was discovered in Minas Gerais in the 1690s. Following independence in 1822 and the abolition of slavery in 1888, there was a massive influx of international immigrants : Asians, Italians, Germans, Poles, and Spanish. Thus indigenous Indians, conquering Portuguese, and imported African slaves contribute the 3 principal influences on Brazil’s cuisine, with additional, minor, immigrant influences particularly in the South.
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, the Indians’ main staple was manioc (cassava). Its flour – farinha de mandioca - remains basic to the Brazilian diet, appearing everywhere as a condiment, either boiled to a gloopy sauce called pirão, or toasted and fried in oil as farofa, to sprinkle on wet dishes. Further Indian culinary contributions include potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams; also peanuts, corn porridge, squash and beans; many species of game and fish; and methods for preserving them by smoking and drying. The natives popularised maté – the caffeine-rich tea-like infusion drunk throughout Brazil - and the equally popular guaraná berry which, with stimulant properties, is made into a fizzy drink of the same name.
Portuguese influences on Brazil’s food include the use of salt cod (bacalhau), also eggs and sugar in desserts, although these are given a Brazilian flavour by adding indigenous ingredients (e.g. coconut, in quindim - a coconut custard). The Portuguese introduced North Africa traditions (e.g. coffee, dried fruits and pastries), but the strongest African influence came via African cooks who ran the kitchens of the sugar barons’ great colonial mansions. Many dishes, particularly on the North East coast, show their African roots with coconut milk, hot red malagueta pepper, and dendê (palm-tree oil).
Brazilians like their food. Typically, breakfast and dinner are light, and lunch is the main meal. In addition to manioc, staples include black beans (feijão preto), white beans (feijão branco) and rice (arroz). Brazilian food is nothing if not generous – many dishes are designed to be shared, so check before ordering. A typical seafood feast in the south might offer three different prawn dishes, mussels, stuffed crab, gratinéed oysters, and fish goujons followed by a main dish of fish in prawn sauce with pirão, then dessert. As well as churrasco (barbecued meat), particularly popular – and good value – is the “por quilo” lunch buffet, where you select from a vast range of from hot and cold dishes (which may include lobster, beef carpaccio, prawns, eggs, pasta dishes and assorted salads), and pay by weight.
In Brazil, you are never far from food: everywhere street stalls sell delicious and cheap hot and cold savoury snacks: pastéis (deep fried pastries filled with chicken, meat or cheese), coxinha (breaded chicken drumstick-shaped snacks), misto quente (like a toasted cheese and ham sandwich) and pão de queijo (small and frequently rather heavy cheesy dough rolls made with manioc flour). For the really hungry, there is the “completo” – a hot dog with all the trimmings: peas and chips, cheese, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise etc.
Along with maté and fizzy guaraná, across Brazil you will find juice stalls selling delicious fruit juice drinks – “sucos” - sometimes offering literally dozens of different juices, many from the Amazon that you will not find elsewhere. Açaí – a fruit rich in vitamin C - is popular, along with mango, cashew (“caju”; made from the fruit rather than the nut), and passion fruit (maracuja). Agua de coco – coconut liquid - is ubiquitous, as is caldo de cana – sugar cane juice.
Beer is a popular drink in Brazil. The Germans contributed brewing expertise - draft “choppe” is served ice cold; bottled beer is brought to the table then served out in small glasses. Brazil produces some wine: this is generally fresh, fruity and relatively low in alcohol. The main wine-producing area is Rio Grande do Sul, in the South. Cachaça (AKA aguardente, pinga) is a clear, strong, highly popular spirit distilled from sugarcane. Mixed with sugar, ice and lemon/lime juice gives Brazil’s national cocktail – the caipirinha.
Food in Brazil shows strong regional differences. In cold and mountainous Minas Gerais – inland SE Brazil and heart of the 18th century goldrush - food is hearty and homely, based on pork and beans: a typical platter will include beans, pork chop, sausage, bacon and egg, served with rice and salad. The vast pampas (grasslands) of the Southern states, especially around Rio Grande do Sul, house huge herds of beef cattle. This is the home of churrasco – served “rodizio” style as part of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Chefs serve a vast assortment of barbecued meat cuts at the table from “espetos” – skewers - and guests help themselves from a huge selection of salads and other hot dishes. Reflecting the area’s original settlers, the South also has a strong Germanic/Bavarian influence with its preponderance of beer and sausage. Italian and Swiss influences abound too, with raclette, pizza, pasta and fondue. Bakeries in Joinsville, whose population is 80% German, offer every variation on streusel- and cheese- cakes.
In NE Brazil, West African influences – dendê, peppers and coconut milk - are typified by Bahian dishes such as moqueca (tomato and coconut-based seafood stew), acarajé, abará, vatapá, caruru, and shrimp bobó. Many Bahian dishes utilise the fabulous seafood found in this fertile coastal region: fish include pirarucu and tambaqui; the main staple is manioc. The Amazon contributes an amazing variety of exotic fruits and vegetables as well as some delicious – if bony – river fish, including piranha.
Finally, one cannot leave Brazil without trying the national dish. Particularly popular on Wednesdays and Saturdays, feijoada is a hearty stew of black beans, smoked and sun dried meats especially pork and sausages, all served with rice. Portions are large, as is much of the population.