For many people, food is an important aspect of traveling. This is also true for me. I love experiencing local cuisine, enjoy conversing with the locals about food and get excited when I am allowed to join in for the fun.
Brazil holds many culinary delights. I have had the opportunity to try some of them. I tried my best to skip the international cuisine that is strong in Brazil, especially regarding Italian food, there are Pizza places everywhere. Instead I went for local delights, which were delicious most of the time and… interesting… at other times.
When I first arrived in Brazil, I stayed at a friend’s place in Rio de Janeiro. She and her mother (who spoke no English, I went from 3 words of Portuguese to being able to have small conversations in 3 weeks time) took me to the lagoon on my first night in Rio. Having stepped out of the airplane only 2 hours before, I was handed my first Brazilian treat, a tapioca pancake. A Brazilian lady was standing on flip-flops at this little cart with 4 simple burners on it. She had dented cheap frying pans, a couple of tupperware boxes and some sauce bottles.
She would heat a frying pan, then add some tapioca flour to the pan. No butter or oil was needed. Tapioca is a starch from the manioc plant (more can be found in the Tapioca Travel Log) and it would stick together in the frying pan, making a pancake. She added chicken flakes and cheese from one of the squeeze-bottles to my pancake, topped it with a little more flour and then she flipped it. After both sides were cooked, she would flip it again, fold it and hand it over in a plastic bag, with plastic napkins. The locals claimed it was paper but it really felt like plastic, maybe white parchment paper at best.
The pancake was nice. Strange… but nice. The thing with tapioca is that it has a very strange consistency if you are not used to it, the texture seems completely wrong. It is very chewy and on its own, quite flavourless, the toppings really made the difference. Tapioca pancakes were a treat that I mostly found in Rio de Janeiro and not so much in the other cities I visited. Like regular pancakes, they can also be found topped with Nutella 😀
It wasn’t until I almost left Brazil that I was introduced to the national dish of Feijoada. This was also somewhat intentional, as my hosts, where I would stay again the last few days of my trip, had already told me that they knew a local lady, the grandma of a friend, who made great Feijoada. So, one Sunday afternoon, I found myself in a house with about 10 locals, sitting down for a large portion of homemade Feijoada.
Feijoada is a dish made with black beans and with, originally, cheap cuts of pork. Our host used better cuts of meat in her version. She served the dish with farofa (traditional toasted manioc flour), rice and kale. As her grandson piled on more and more meat, I had to conclude halfway through that I could not finish the plate. This seemed to be a problem I had all over Brazil. Brazilian food is often lacking in vegetables, which I am used to, making everything a bit dry for my taste. So no matter how good the dish was, I could usually finish half the plate and then I would feel like I finished a Christmas meal. Unfortunately, this homemade meal was no different, as the vegetables, the kale, was also lacking in moisture.
When visiting Ilha Grande, I got a feeling for the fish of Brazil and I was determined to mostly eat fish while I was there. Surprising enough, fish was more expensive than meat, even on an island and in a city along the Amazon river. But both that island and that city provided some of the best fish I have ever had in my entire life. I wrote about eating fish on the beach in another travel log.
When I was in Rio, one of the locals introduced me to Açaí, the thick drink made from Açaí berries. Açaí is pronounced A-sa-i. If you don’t pronounce things right in Brazil, they will never (try to) understand you, that was a lesson quickly learned. My true appreciation of Açaí came at Ilha Grande though, where the Açaí drink was much better and where I started my tradition of having it instead of lunch, served with fresh mango and granola. The drink is kind of like a slushy, ice cold and delicious, especially with mango. I came back to the same local restaurant each day for the drink, and they provided it to me even outside of opening hours.
During my travels, I found one distinctly Brazilian custom regarding food. In the evening, cheap places to eat would pop up all over. These were simple items such as popcorn and churros (which are massive in Brazil and are served filled with thick sauces), but also the barbecue was very popular. Next to cheap restaurants, usually with a buffet style serving, many plastic chairs and tables would suddenly appear. Street musicians would entertain the crowds and even on a standard weekday, these places remained packed until midnight.
Another thing that was very noticeable was that Brazilians love pastries and especially deep frying those pastries. Everywhere I looked there were empadas (mini pies), pear-shaped chicken filled fried dough, pastels (pillows of deep fried pastry with a meat or fish filling) and many other treats.
On one of the last days in Rio, I found another deep-fried treat, one similar to the Pastel de Bacalhau from Portugal, namely the Bolinho de Bacalhau. We had them as a starter dish before the Feijoada, and they were brought from a shop around the corner. Like we would have bitterballen, the Brazilians seemed to have Bolinhos de Bacalhau. And they were delicious!
Another unhealthy, but tasty, tradition, were the Doces. Sweet treats. As I travelled through Minas Gerais, I found out just why this was the Doces state of Brazil. There were Docerias everywhere, and some were a true paradise for me to look at all the different treats. I am not much of a sweets lover, but I brought many items as souvenirs.
There were many (overly) sweet desserts available, the most popular of which a sweet caramel custard flan, made in a savarin mold.
And let’s not forget how some bakers got their treats to their customers:
Finally, let’s not forget the drinks. Of course, there was the Caipirinha, a delicious drink made from fresh limes, sugar and Cachaça, a Brazilian alcohol made from sugar cane. I had these many times in the evenings, looking at the Brazilians and street life in general.
Another treat was the sugar cane juice. Not one of my favourites, as it tasted like a sweet pressed out root vegetable, very earthy, but the locals seemed to enjoy it very much. The sugar cane was pulled through a cutting machine in the back of a van, and then pressed to extract the cloudy juices.
Although Brazilian food was lacking in vegetables, and most definitely not healthy on most occasions, I did enjoy a lot of dishes, and will re-create quite some of them, also thanks to the (English!) cookbook on Brazilian cuisine that I received from my Brazilian friend and host in Rio.
And if anybody can every bring me a bottle of this (see picture below, mini peppers in oil), I would be most grateful. I had this on Ilha Grande and only found them in a shop in Tiradentes, which was one of the first cities I visited. Because it was glass, heavy and I had quite some traveling to do, I decided to look for them in Rio, but never found them there. I still regret not having brought a bottle (or 5)