Food and drink
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 in Brazil: 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 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. Hotel breakfast buffets can be disappointingly uniform around the country: slices of cheese, the ubiquitous pão de queijo (a savoury cheese ball made with manioc flour), lots of breads and cakes, fruits, coffee, cold cuts and some variation of chorizo and scrambled eggs. “Tapioca” is ubiquitous in Brazil, though it usually refers to manioc/cassava flour products (typically grainy pancakes with sweet or savoury fillings) rather than the sweet tapioca pudding familiar to foreigners.
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), goiaba (guava), 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).
Our Language section has 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), frango (chicken) and camarão (shrimp) being the best (misto is “mixed”); 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 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.
Food sold by street vendors should be treated with caution, but not dismissed out of hand. 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. A good example in Salvador is acarajé, only available from street vendors – a delicious fried bean mix with shrimp and hot pepper.
Restaurants are ubiquitous, portions are very large and prices extremely reasonable. A prato comercial is around R$12, while a good full meal can usually be had for about R$35 in cheaper 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 quilo, 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, Arab, Italian, 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 almost anywhere of any size will have good ethnic restaurants.
In almost all restaurants the bill comes with a ten percent service charge; whatever you may be told, this is not a mandatory charge, but to not pay it is considered very bad form. Most locals tend not to leave an additional tip, but unless you’ve had bad service it’s a good idea to leave some change, as waiters rely on this to supplement their very low wages (and many restaurants simply pocket the ten percent).
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 quilo 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. 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.
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 espresso. 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.
Brazil’s herbal teas are surprisingly good. Try chá mate, a strong green infusion with a noticeable caffeine hit, or one of the wide variety of herbal teas, most notably that made from guaraná berries. One highly recommended way to drink mate 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 mate.
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.
All the usual brands of soft drinks are available in Brazil, but outshining them all 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, though craft beers made in microbreweries are becoming increasingly popular in the South, São Paulo and Minas Gerais. Brazilians drink beer ice-cold, 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.
Brazilian 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, though even the cheapest bottles are around R$35–40.
Spirits and cachaça
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 than neat.
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