It’s hard to generalize about Brazilian food, largely because there is no single national cuisine but numerous very distinct regional ones. Nature dealt Brazil a full hand for these: there’s an abundant variety of fruit, vegetables and spices – as you can see for yourself walking through any food market.
There are five main regional cuisines: comida mineira from Minas Gerais, based on pork, vegetables (especially couve, collard greens) and tutu, a kind of refried bean cooked with manioc flour and used as a thick sauce; comida baiana from the Salvador coast, the most exotic to gringo palates, using fresh fish and shellfish, hot peppers, palm oil, coconut milk and fresh coriander; comida do sertão from the interior of the Northeast, which relies on rehydrated, dried or salted meat and the fruit, beans and tubers of the region; comida gaúcha from Rio Grande do Sul, the most carnivorous diet in the world, revolving around every imaginable kind of meat grilled over charcoal; and comida amazônica, based on river fish, manioc sauces and the many fruits and palm products of northern Brazil. Comida do sertão is rarely served outside its homeland, but you’ll find restaurants serving the others throughout Brazil, although – naturally – they’re at their best in their region of origin.
Alongside the regional restaurants, there is a standard fare available everywhere that can soon get dull unless you cast around: steak (bife) or chicken (frango), served with arroz e feijão (rice and beans), and often with salad, fries and farinha, dried manioc (cassava) flour that you sprinkle over everything. Farofa is toasted farinha, and usually comes with onions and bits of bacon mixed in. In cheaper restaurants, all this would come on a single large plate: look for the words prato feito, prato comercial or refeição completa if you want to fill up without spending too much.
Feijoada is the closest Brazil comes to a national dish. It is a stew of pork leftovers (ear, pizzle and other unmentionables that fortunately can be fished out), sausage, smoked ribs and beef jerky cooked slowly for hours with black beans and garlic until mouthwateringly tender, served garnished with slices of orange and pork crackling and accompanied by shots of cachaça rum. It is a national ritual for Saturday lunch, when restaurants serve feijoada all day.
Some of the fruit is familiar – manga (mango), maracujá (passion fruit), limão (lime) – but most of it has only Brazilian names: jaboticaba, fruta do conde, sapoti and jaca. The most exotic fruits are Amazonian: try bacuri, açaí – increasingly seen in Europe and the US as a health food or juice – and the extraordinary cupuaçú, the most delicious of all. These all serve as the basis for juices and ice cream (sorvete), which can be excellent; keep an eye out for sorvetarias, ice-cream parlours.
For a list of common menu terms.
Snacks and street food
On every street corner in Brazil you will find a lanchonete, a mixture of café and bar that sells beer and rum, snacks, cigarettes, soft drinks, coffee and sometimes small meals. Bakeries – padarias – often have a lanchonete attached, and they’re good places for cheap snacks: an empada or empadinha is a small pie, which has various fillings – carne (meat), palmito (palm heart) and camarão (shrimp) being the best; a pastel is a fried, filled pasty; an esfiha is a savoury pastry stuffed with spiced meat; and a coxinha is spiced chicken rolled in manioc dough and then fried. In central Brazil, try pão de queijo, a savoury cheese snack that goes perfectly with coffee; in the Amazon, keep an eye out for a tapioquinha, a tapioca pancake folded with cheese, ham or whatever else you want to start the day with. All these savoury snacks fall under the generic heading salgados.
If you haven’t had breakfast (café da manha) at your hotel, then a bakery/lanchonete is a good place to head for; and for a more substantial meal lanchonetes will generally serve a prato comercial, too. In both lanchonetes and padarias you usually pay first at the till, and then take your ticket to the counter to get what you want. You’ll find a growing number of fast food outlets in cities. Menus in them are easy to understand because they are in mangled but recognizable English, albeit with Brazilian pronunciation. A hamburger is a X-burger (pronounced sheezboorga), a hot dog is cachorro quente; a baurú is a club sandwich with steak and egg; a mixto quente a toasted cheese and ham sandwich.
Food sold by street vendors should be treated with caution, but not dismissed out of hand. You can practically see amoebas crawling over some of the food you see on sale in the streets, but plenty of vendors have proper stalls and can be very professional, with a loyal clientele of office workers and locals. Some of the food they sell has the advantage of being cooked a long time, which reduces the chance of picking anything up, and in some places – Salvador and Belém especially – you can get good food cheaply in the street; just choose your vendor sensibly. In Salvador, try acarajé, only available from street vendors – a delicious fried bean mix with shrimp and hot pepper; and in Belém go for maniçoba, spiced sausage with chicory leaves, pato no tucupi, duck stewed in manioc sauce, or tacacá, shrimp stewed in manioc sauce.
Restaurants – restaurantes – are ubiquitous, portions are very large and prices extremely reasonable. A prato comercial is around R$10, while a good full meal can usually be had for about R$35, even in expensive-looking restaurants. Cheaper places, though, tend only to be open for lunch. One of the best options offered by many restaurants, typically at lunchtime only, is self-service comida por kilo, where a wide choice of food is priced according to the weight of the food on your plate. Specialist restaurants to look out for include a rodizio, where you pay a fixed charge and eat as much as you want; most churrascarias – restaurants specializing in charcoal-grilled meat of all kinds, especially beef – operate this system, too, bringing a constant supply of meat on huge spits to the tables.
Many restaurants will present unsolicited food the moment you sit down – the couvert, which can consist of anything from a couple of bits of raw carrot and an olive to quite an elaborate and substantial plate. Although the price is generally modest, it still has to be paid for. If you don’t want it, ask the waiter to take it away.
Brazil also has a large variety of ethnic restaurants, thanks to the generations of Portuguese, Arabs, Italians, Japanese, German and other immigrants who have made the country their home. The widest selection is in São Paulo, with the best Italian, Lebanese and Japanese food in Brazil, but anywhere of any size will have good ethnic restaurants, often in surprising places: Belém, for example, has several excellent Japanese restaurants, thanks to a Japanese colony founded fifty years ago in the interior. Ethnic food may be marginally more expensive than Brazilian, but it’s never exorbitant.
While the bill normally comes with a ten percent service charge, you should still tip, as waiters rely more on tips than on their very low wages.
Being a vegetarian – or at least a strict one – is no easy matter in Brazil. If you eat fish, there’s no problem, especially in the Northeast and Amazônia, where seafood forms the basis of many meals. You can usually get a fair choice of vegetarian food at a comida por kilo restaurant, which offers a range of salads and vegetables, as well as rice, manioc and potatoes. However, they are often only open during the day, as are the occasional vegetarian restaurants (usually described as Restaurante Natural) that can be found in the larger cities. Otherwise, you’re up against one of the world’s most carnivorous cultures. In the South and centre-west, churrasco rules – served at restaurants where you eat as many different cuts of meat as you can manage, and where requests for meals without meat are greeted with astonishment. At most restaurants – even churrascarias – huge salads are available but, if you’re a vegan, always enquire whether eggs or cheese are included. If you get fed up with rice, beans and salad, there are always pizzerias around.
Hot drinks and soft drinks
Coffee is the great national drink, served strong, hot and sweet in small cups and drunk quickly. However, coffee is often a great disappointment in Brazil: most of the good stuff is exported, and what’s available tends to come so stiff with sugar that it’s almost undrinkable unless you order an expresso. By far the best coffee is found in São Paulo and points south. You are never far from a cafézinho (as these small cups of coffee are known; café refers to coffee in its raw state). The best way to start your day is with café com leite, hot milk with coffee added to taste. Decaffeinated coffee is almost impossible to find in restaurants, and difficult even in delicatessens.
Tea (chá) is surprisingly good. Try chá mate, a strong green tea with a noticeable caffeine hit, or one of the wide variety of herbal teas, most notably that made from guaraná. One highly recommended way to drink tea is using the chimarrão, very common in Rio Grande do Sul: a gourd filled with chá mate and boiling water, sucked through a silver straw. You will need some practice to avoid burning your lips, but once you get used to it, it is a wonderfully refreshing way to take tea.
The great variety of fruit in Brazil is put to excellent use in sucos: fruit is popped into a liquidizer with sugar and crushed ice to make a delicious drink. Made with milk rather than water it becomes a vitamina. Most lanchonetes and bars sell sucos and vitaminas, but for the full variety you should visit a specialist casa de sucos, which are found in most town centres. Widely available, and the best option to quench a thirst, are suco de maracujá (passion fruit) and suco de limão (lime). In the North and Northeast, try graviola, bacuri and cupuaçu. Sugar will always be added to a suco unless you ask for it sem açúcar or natural; some, notably maracujá and limão, are undrinkable without it.
Soft drinks are the regular products of corporate capitalism and all the usual brands are available. Outshining them all, though, is a local variety, guaraná, a fizzy and very sweet drink made out of Amazonian berries. An energy-loaded powder is made from the same berries and sold in health stores in the developed world – basically, the effect is like a smooth release of caffeine without the jitters.
Beer is mainly of the lager type. Brazilians drink it ice-cold, and it comes mostly in 600ml bottles or cans: ask for a cerveja. Many places only serve beer on draught – called chopp. The best brands are the regional beers of Pará and Maranhão, Cerma and Cerpa, the latter available in good restaurants nationwide and called a cerpinha. The best nationally available beers are Antárctica, Bohêmia and Brahma. Wine (vinho) is mostly mediocre and sweet, though some of the wines produced in areas of Italian settlement in the South are pretty good, while sparkling wines can be excellent. The most reliable, widely available Brazilian label is Miolo, a smallish producer whose wines are found in good supermarkets throughout Brazil. Keep an eye out for the wines of the Casa Valduga and Don Laurindo, as well as the truly outstanding Villa Francioni label, a fragrant white produced near São Joaquim in the highlands of Santa Catarina. Commercial wine production has recently started in Bahia’s São Francisco valley, with some surprisingly good results: the Miolo Shiraz can be found in many supermarkets. Despite the undoubted improvement in the quality of Brazilian wines in recent years, however, imported wines from Chile and Argentina (or Europe) remain more reliable and can be cheaper than the best that Brazil produces.
As for spirits, you can buy Scotch (uisque), either nacional, made up from imported whisky essence and not worth drinking, or internacional, imported and extremely expensive. Far better to stick to what Brazilians drink, cachaça (also called pinga or in Rio, paraty), sugar-cane rum. The best cachaça is produced in stills on country farms; it is called cachaça da terra and, when produced with care, has a smoothness and taste the larger commercially produced brands lack; look out for cachaça from Minas Gerais particularly. Alternatively, there are scores of brands of rum: some of the commonest ones are Velho Barreiro, Pitu and 51, but they are best drunk mixed in a caipirinha (see The media) than neat.
Brazilians drink cachaça either neat or mixed with fruit juice. Taken neat it’s very fiery, but in a cocktail it can be delicious. By far the best way to drink it is in a caipirinha, along with football and music one of Brazil’s great gifts to world civilization – rum mixed with fresh lime, sugar and crushed ice: it may not sound like much, but it is the best cocktail you’re ever likely to drink. Be sure to stir it regularly while drinking, and treat it with healthy respect – it is much more powerful than it tastes. Variants are the caipirosca or caipiríssima, the same made with vodka. Waiters will often assume foreigners want vodka, so make sure you say caipirinha de cachaça. You can also get batidas, cachaça mixed with fruit juice and ice, which flow like water during Carnaval: they also pack quite a punch, despite tasting like a soft drink.
There are no licensing laws in Brazil, so you can get a drink at any time of day or night – though driving after consuming even a small amount of alcohol is strictly forbidden.