Brazil’s cuisine is elbowing its way into the Brazilian holy grail of soccer, samba and carnival, proving its food is a force to be reckoned with. Long gone are the days of being overshadowed by sly dribbles on the pitch and grand carnival parades. Brazil is establishing itself as one of the world’s booming gastronomic centres.
Brazilian culinary culture is marked by impressive diversity, with influences from a great number of different nations and cultures.
Each region has its own unique cuisine. A study commissioned by the Brazilian Government in 2017 revealed which cultures have had the most significant contribution to each region.
Brazil’s North specialities
Brazil’s North has a fantastic regional offer of ingredients. Mandioca (or cassava) is the base of a variety of Brazilian specialities, including the essential farofa. Pirarucú and Tucunaré are the popular choice for fish, often angled by traditional riverside communities. Special seasoning urucum gives dishes a deep red signature colour and has remarkable medicinal properties. Jambú, a plant that leaves your mouth slightly numb and tingly, expands the conventional expectations of culinary experiences. The cuisine here is marked by a mix of European and indigenous influences, as well as a robust Lebanese presence, taking full advantage of the offer of these exquisite ingredients. Migration from the Northeast region during the rubber boom in the early 20th century also brought in influences from this adjacent area. Native fruits Açaí, Guaraná and Cupuaçu are loved all over the country in its frozen form but are freshly prepared in the North, bringing out a more vibrant taste and texture. The exquisite Tucupi duck, Tacacá soup and Maniçoba cassava-based dish are other unmissable regional dishes.
The Northeast region’s food is very much defined by its geography and history. The Northern leg of the Brazilian coast – from Pernambuco right down to Bahia – has strong roots in African cuisine after many centuries enduring the Atlantic slave trade. With African culture heroically preserved in quilombos, traditional ingredients such as dendê oil – derived from palm trees – and cassava flour are still remarkably present in most of the region’s dishes including the famous Acarajé – savoury cakes made from black-eyed peas comparable to a falafel – and Vatapá, a seasoned purée with Yorubá origins. As much of the region is along the coast, seafood is the star of many traditional dishes. Caranguejada, a stew made of crabs, seasoned with bell peppers, onions and coconut milk, is a favorite seaside dish. Further away from the beaches, in Maranhão, the food leans towards Portugal. Dishes are less spicy, and the dry, arid countryside has beef and sunshine in plenty. Unsurprisingly, carne de sol – sundried, salted beef – is another of the region’s star meals.
The Center-West revolves around beef
Livestock is the region’s primary economic activity, and its wealthy, carnivorous population loves meat. Contributions from Syrian, Italian, Portuguese and African immigrants have added new ingredients to the culinary mix. It’s proximity to the North gives its dishes some unique characteristics and brings in traditional elements such as okra and pequi – a nut with a striking flavour. If you’re ever in the Center-West, you can’t miss the chance to try Picadinho com Quiabo – okra and diced beef dish, pequi rice and vaca atolada, a mandioc and beef rib stew.
South and Southeast regions
Like much of the rest of Brazil, the Southeast’s food relies heavily on African, indigenous and Portuguese influences. Meat, roots, vegetables and grains have been present in the region since the 19th century. However, the culture and culinary brought by Japanese, Italian, Syrian, Spanish and Lebanese immigrants in the 20th century transformed the local cuisine into an extravaganza of flavours, ingredients and seasonings. The vast array of options makes it difficult to define the traditional dishes from the Southeast, but a few standout dishes include: Tutu à Mineira, a bean-based dish with a punch, Virado à Paulista, a rich whole-meal dish and a popular lunch option, and Moqueca Capixaba, a saltwater fish stew with distinctive seasoning.
In the South, it’s all about barbeques. The region’s proximity with Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay influences the local cuisine and puts meat at the centre of the menu, especially in the southernmost state Rio Grande do Sul. This region is sprinkled with German, Spanish and Italian communities, which have preserved European culinary traditions through the centuries, but with a Brazilian twist. The most famous dishes include: Galeto, an Italian-inspired chicken dish, Barreado, a meat dish with a special 300-year old preparation ritual brought from Portugal, Carreteiro rice, a rice-and-bean stir fry created by Southern truckers and Catarinense soup, a bowl of comforting soup for the South’s cold winter period.
Brazilian chefs gaining the world
Chef Mathias Marcondes believes Brazilian chefs are also gaining notoriety and well-earned attention, becoming more and more influential on a global level. “There is no doubt that we have recently gained more visibility. Brazilian chefs have earned more prominent positions at The World’s 50 Best, and the arrival of the Michelin guide to the Rio-São Paulo axis. It is also visible in the fact that Brazilian barbecue is making such a huge success in the US and the multitude of national recipes that are found on foreign language sites,” he said.
The level of innovation that Brazilian chefs are bringing to the world’s gastronomy has been exalted even by the great critics. Many of these chefs have managed to please even the most difficult of palates by creating dishes that transform Brazilian cuisine in a new and elegant way. “Some of the pioneers in this are Jefferson Rueda, from Casa do Porco Bar (previously Attimo), Alex Atala from Dom, and Helena Rizzo from Peanut,” says Marcondes. The Brazilian chef Raphael Rego, now heading the Parisian restaurant Oka, is an example of the revolution in Brazilian gastronomy and how its international recognition. At the end of January 2019, he received his second Michelin star for creating a dish with both foie gras and tucupi, mixing French and Brazilian cuisine.
Brazilian gastronomy has proved – and continues to prove – that it is here to be read about, seen and especially tasted by all lovers of good food.