In praise of brazilian food

Even at its best, I don’t imagine that Brazilian food will ever get top marks from gourmets, and the national diet, inasfar as there is one, will never gain the kudos of the Mediterranean diet. But that doesn’t mean there’s not good – and original – food to have.

I love eating in Brazil.

One has only to look around in the street to know that the diet of most Brazilians isn’t good for the health. There are a lot of overweight and obese people. Brazilians like figure-hugging leggings and tops in garish clashing colours. There’s no hiding place for excess body fat in that clothing.

Breakfast means cake

For visitors like me, staying in hotels, the day starts with breakfast. It’s included in the rate in even the poshest hotels. Sharing the buffet with Brazilians and watching their choices is a great guide to the attitude to diet. There’s fruit, great tropical fruit; papaya, pineapple, passion fruit…. that the locals all seem to avoid. Instead they head straight for the small fried savoury snacks. There can be a lot of variety, though arrive late for the buffet and you’ll certainly find all the good ones gone!

You won’t find the really good ones on a hotel breakfast buffet, though. Get a local to recommend a padaria (bakery) to buy coxinhas – essentially a large stuffed croquette, thick bechamel wrapped around a filling, most commonly of minced chicken or cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried. It’ll be the size and shape of a large pear or chicken drumstick (the same name). On its own, it will keep a diet-conscious person going all morning and possibly into the afternoon too. A Brazilian, however, will often devour at least a couple – and they really are very good. As I said, you need to find a good padaria – but every city and neighbourhood in Brazil seems to have one that locals claim make the best cozinha in the world.

Brazilian savouries - pasteis (behind) and mini-coxinhas (foreground)
Brazilian savouries – pasteis (behind) and mini-coxinhas (foreground)

The other fried food you’ll find for breakfast is pastel – plural pasteis – a rectangular pastry package stuffed with cheese, ham, or more or less anything. They come in small size as a snack, but visit the padaria and you’ll find “regular” ones that are about 10 x 15 cm.

With so much fried food on offer, you may well ask why they’re called bakeries – but bread is a highly important part of the Brazilian breakfast too. Pao de queijo – cheese bread – is a speciality unique to Brazil. They are little balls, about 3cm diameter, made of cassava flour and cheese, and eaten warm from the oven – and they’re very moreish.

My own pao de queijo - nearly cooked
My own pao de queijo – just need a few more minutes…

Of course there is regular bread too, almost always white and very airy light, and almost always – at least for hotel breakfasts – turned into cheese and ham sandwiches. 

And to finish – though, for quite a lot of Brazilians, it’s also to begin – there’s cake. Lots of cake. More basic hotels may not have much or any choice of petiscos, and the pao de queijo may all have been grabbed by earlier breakfasters, but I can guarantee they’ll have plenty of cak

There’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil

To go with the cake, there’s coffee, of course. Brazilians drink a lot of it, all through the day, in small espresso-sized quantities – the “cafezinho”. Brazilian coffee is famous – outside Brazil. Surprisingly, in the country itself they’re pretty good at destroying most of its aroma and any of its subtlety. Of course, for home use one can buy filter and espresso machines, but hotels, cafes and offices mostly make coffee in big boilers, creating an extremely black, thick and strong brew that almost inevitably comes ready-sweetened. I love coffee – even stewed-to-death Brazilian coffee – but I don’t take sugar, so the very first words of Portuguese that I had to learn to pronounce correctly were “sem açucar” (without sugar). Although getting that was rarely a problem in hotels, in many offices there is no choice; either stand-your-spoon-up-in-it sweetened or nothing.

After that calorie-intensive breakfast, you’re probably wondering how Brazilians survive until lunchtime. But somehow they do.

Beans and rice for lunch

And then there’s another carbohydrate hit, in the form of rice and beans – “feijões”. It’s in fact a staple across the whole of Latin America, although the type of beans used varies a bit, presumably depending on availability, but always small, dark red or black. A large scoop of white rice doused with another scoop of beans is fundamental to most people’s lunch most days. It’s certainly the first thing put on the plate in factory and office canteens.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of places to eat out, and they get pretty busy. If all you want is a sandwich, there are takeaway “lanchonetes” everywhere. The name doesn’t really have anything to do with lunch – a “lanche” is a sandwich, or rather a large bap.

Weighing in

Although they exist in other countries, “por quilo” (per-kilo) restaurants are ubiquitous in Brazil, and they’re the go-to choice at lunchtime. They’re self-service buffets – you pick up a plate and help yourself to whatever you want from the offering, then take it to the cashier who weighs it and charges you “per kilo” for the food you’ve taken. There’s just one price – so, gram for gram, you’re paying the same for rice and beans as you are for meat or fish. There’s always a big sign up showing the price per kilo and the standard weight of an empty plate (pick one that’s chipped to get a few extra grams of food free!). There’s a big variation in quality and choice between restaurants – but, just like everywhere else in the world, look for the busiest ones, they’re invariably the best.

Even going to an upmarket one, there’s no need to worry that you won’t get your rice and beans! Other staples you’ll always find and either love or loathe are manioca (in English-speaking countries, usually called cassava root or yam) – great when deep fried, rather stodgy when just boiled – and cabbage, finely shredded and boiled to death. The good news is that there’ll be salad, meat, fish and, if you’re lucky, interesting things like sushi too.

On some weekdays, you might even find what many Brazilians regard as the ultimate weekend lunch – Feijoada. It’s a heavy bean stew with added meat and sausage (especially sausage), and, of course, should be eaten with rice and cabbage. Manioca too – but this time in a different form, dried and shredded, and called Farofa. The reason feijoada is considered a weekend lunch is that the only thing you’ll want to do after eating a plateful is to sleep a siesta. Be warned, therefore, not to over-indulge if you find it on the lunchtime buffet and you need to work in the afternoon.

Dinner time is the best time

Dinner time – or maybe Sunday lunch – is when the finest in Brazilian dining comes out. As you’d expect, different restaurants serve different cuisines. However, one common theme stands out – and that’s the Rodizio. The literal translation is “rotation”, and that’s exactly what happens. Waiters keep coming around with different things, you take what you fancy and then, a bit later, accept a different morsel from another waiter. And so it goes on until you stop them. There’s a device on each table – usually a red and green disc – which you put to green when you’re hungry and red when you’re not, to keep the waiters away.

Brazilian-style restaurants in the UK and USA have the same system, but in my experience, you might have to wait five or ten minutes for a solitary waiter to come past to give you a tidbit. In Brazil, turning the disc to green denotes feeding time at the zoo, and a whole horde of waiters bearing different delicacies may descend all at once. This is good, because you can be picky and choose the morsels you fancy; I’m sure the reason that the British equivalents only have a single waiter at infrequent intervals is to get diners to eat cheaper cuts, or offload leftovers, or both.

Rodizios are also for the hungry – you can eat as much as you want for a fixed price, and many take full advantage. Many restaurants, recognising that one partner is likely to eat much less than the other, have a “couples” price. And kids go free, or for a low price – until it comes to desserts, which aren’t included in the price, and inevitably carry a premium price tag.

The real Brazilian classic is churrasco – grilled meat –but they apply the same principle to most other types of food too, particularly pizza and Japanese.

For the carnivore, there is nothing quite like a Brazilian churrasco. It’s their one cuisine that attracts world fame. South Americans in general love their meat, Brazilians more than most. Perhaps not quite as much as Argentinians and Uruguayans, for whom beef is a religion, but not far off.

Of course, there’s nothing unique about grilling meat – it’s the presentation that makes it different. The most iconic that one sees in pictures is picanha – beef sirloin, cut into 15cm thick joints, three or four of them skewered on a sword, anointed with salt and barbecued in a pit. As the outside layer of meat crisps, the sword is borne by a brave waiter in his left hand, clutching a dagger (OK, carving knife) in his right, and brought to you table, where the meat is sliced off thinly. The crispy outside has a delicious barbecued flavour. The downside is that it also gives you a massive salt hit, perhaps inadvisable for those with high blood pressure. Those who prefer roast beef in varying stages of rareness go for later slices. After the first few slices are served, the sword is returned to the pit to be barbecued again.

It’s not just picanha. There are many different cuts of beef alone, and in a posher restaurant, as a foreigner, they’ll serve most of them. They’ll likely give you a card with a “cow map” showing which bit comes from where and what each is called. There’s also chicken, lamb, ham and, the piece de resistance for many Brazilians, chicken hearts, threaded in their hundreds onto swords.

For variety – and for any suffering vegetarians who may inadvertently be there – there is always a big buffet salad counter, and even perhaps other dishes; but the meat is king.

Not a carnivore yourself? There’s definitely still a rodizio for you.

Brazilian pizza
A typical Brazilian pizza

Pizzas are not the same the world over

I’m a huge fan of Brazilian pizza. Surely pizza’s the same the world over? Certainly not. As you’d expect, there are all sorts of toppings available – and the whole point of a rodizio service is to try them all (well, several) – but the big difference in Brazil is cheese. Still mozzarella cheese, but masses of it. You know the adverts for pizza restaurants at home, with the picture of a slice of pizza dangling long stretchy sinewy strands of cheese? Then you go to the same restaurant chain and find it’s impossible to recreate, as they’re so mean with the cheese? That’s never a problem in Brazil. In fact there is no skimping on any of the toppings. Pizzas are big, loaded and cheesy – and if you go on rodizio night, you can try lots. Not a rodizio night, but in the mood for variety? No problem, you can get a pizza all to yourselves and choose it to be divided into 2, 3 or 4 segments, all with different toppings.

Brazilians are also such pizzaholics that they’ve even invented dessert pizzas! Instead of tomato sauce and cheese, think chocolate and fruit (perhaps there is a place in this world for pineapple on pizza!).

International cuisine – Brazil style

Beyond meat and pizza, there are plenty of other options. Everyone knows Brazil is known as the “Rainbow Nation”, and each wave of immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century brought its own cuisine with it. Every one was adapted to local ingredients and evolved over the following century, so some are now only vaguely recognisable.

The Italians brought pizza, of course, but also parmigiana, another very popular dish, albeit no longer much like its European ancestor. Take thin beef steaks, beat them flat, egg and breadcrumb them, fry them – so far, it’s schnitzel – put them as a layer in a deep baking tray, cover with a thick layer of tomato sauce and then a thicker layer of cheese, and bake until sizzling. Meat and breadless pizza all in the same dish!  

The Portuguese brought bacalhau – salt cod. Prepared in a myriad of ways, these dishes remain the closest to the originals, probably because of the overwhelming Portuguese influence; after all, Brazil was once a colony. But then perhaps it’s surprising that there aren’t more restaurants dedicated to bacalhau.

One of my favourites is Japanese. In Sao Paulo state there are lots of Japanese restaurants, because there are a lot of Japanese people. A million of them arrived in the early 1900’s when there was a famine in Japan; they came as agricultural workers and started the coffee plantations. Although there’s been a lot of intermarriage in the past century, many stayed culturally tied, and today there are still at least 3 million who have pure Japanese blood. These divide into “true” Japanese (the ones who can speak and write the language) and “fake” Japanese (a majority who only speak and write Portuguese). But whether “true” or “fake”, they run and patronise lots of Japanese restaurants.

Back home, such restaurants are expensive. In Brazil, whilst they’re relatively expensive compared to other cuisines, they’re very affordable – and, best of all, they’re rodizio, so you can eat as much sushi, sashimi, yakitori and tempura as you like, all for one price.

Washing it all down with a bem gelada

Naturally you’ll want to wash this all down with a nice drink – and that of choice in Brazil is beer. Beer served very very very cold. “Estupidamente gelada”, as locals say. If it’s draught, it’s served in small glasses – about 200ml – and called chopp. To prove the beer’s going to be cold, the taps have digital thermometers on the front of them – the typical temperature displayed is about -3oC. Much more common are large bottles (650ml), perfect for couples or groups to share. It’s a hot country, so that beer needs to stay cold – so bottles are quite often served in ice buckets, and more commonly still with an insulating foam polystyrene sleeve, colloquially called a “camisinha” (condom). Expensive bars and restaurants serve half-size bottles, like the ones we find in Europe and North America, called “long necks”.

There are lots of brands, but the market is dominated by Skol and Brahma. Personally, I’ve avoided Brahma since I was introduced to it on my first business visit to Brazil and blamed it for a terrible headache that I woke up with the following day. It wasn’t that I’d drunk too much of it, of course!

I definitely do have a favourite, though – Original. Whilst I’ve really gone off beer when I’m home or anywhere else, I can and do drink a lot of Original bem gelada (well chilled) when I am in Brazil. Just writing about it now makes me miss it. That and picanha…. What I’d give for a churrasco dinner right now!

However much I love things Brazilian, the wine proves that there are some things that a country just can’t and shouldn’t even try to do. I suppose the sparkling wine is OK if you like semi-sweet weak prosecco and you’re in a party where the quality of the drink is pretty immaterial, but I warn readers to avoid local red and white wines. Better restaurants serve good stuff from Argentina and Chile, but for some reason, despite Mercosur, they’re expensive.

The national spirit is Cachaça, distilled from sugar cane (so related to rum). The cheapest stuff (the well known brand being “51”) is clear white alcohol. On its own, it has all the attraction of paintbrush cleaner, but becomes perfectly acceptable when poured over a glassful of crushed limes and sugar in the national cocktail, caipirinha.

There’s very good cachaça to be found, though, and some bars have shelves and shelves with perhaps a thousand different varieties. Most of the good stuff comes from the region of Minas Gerais (the mines themselves are of iron ore, but the region is better known in Brazil for its cheese and cachaça). Usually a golden colour, it’s a pleasure to drink neat or, in a popular and lethal combination, as a chaser to chilled beer.

This article is an extract from my forthcoming book, provisionally titled “Business travel – but not as we know it”. It won’t be as boring as the title suggests, honestly!

Coming soon – my recipes for cooking picanha in an ordinary kitchen without a sword to hand and pao de queijo, meanwhile you can find my other recipes here