How to Eat Your Way Around Brazil

A quick guide to Brazilian food, so you can read the menu fast, without needing a crash course in Portuguese.

Photo © Getty Images/BrasilNut1

In the 16th century, it was the Portuguese who foisted on Brazil their liking for salted codfish (bacalhao), along with shellfish, meats, olive oil and desserts made with sugar and eggs. Ingredients like coriander, cloves and peppers came from Africa, but home to part of the world's richest ecosystem, the Brazilian Amazon yields an incredible selection of ingredients.

While Brazil may produce a ton of coffee, they export all the good stuff. So, unfortunately, what you're served for breakfast in your hostel will likely taste like dirty water.

The good news is, we put together a guide to Brazilian Food so you know your empadinhas from your acarajé.

Food in Rio

Food and drink (arte do comerbem) is integral to the Carioca’s pleasure principals. The churrascaria (a traditional barbecue restaurant) is one of Brazil’s most iconic exports, and Rio is home to some of the most authentic restaurants. A veteran on the scene, the Churrascaria Palace in Copacabana serves a fixed menu that includes chargrilled, all-you-can-eat meat, rib-sticking sides and salads; night after night, deft waiters shave sashimi-thin slices of prime beef to a sultry sound track of bossa nova.

The national dish, feijoada, is generally served on Saturdays. There’s something almost biblical about a traditional feijoada restaurant in Rio, where steaming cauldrons of the hearty stew are ceremoniously served on long wooden tables by dapper waist-coated waiters. Rio is dotted with no-frills neighborhood bars (botecos) where music and dancing are sustained by empadinhas (baked or deep-fried pastries stuffed with meat and cheese), as well as bolinhos de bacalhau (fried dried cod and potato balls). Some of the world’s most atmospheric beach bars squat on Rio’s fabled sands. Nothing compares to watching the sun set, with your toes in the sand, as you enjoy the buzz from a caipirinha.

Food in Sao Paulo

If you're a foodie, there are few better cities to eat than São Paulo. This is where young Brazilian chefs converge to redefine the popular conception of Brazilian, indeed Latin, cuisine. If you want to splash out on one restaurant make it Alex Atala’s DOM. Frequently lauded as one of the world’s best restaurants, DOM raises the bar with its an avant-garde tasting menu; you might be served a bouquet of edible flowers or an ant atop a hunk of pineapple.

Food in Bahia

Home to Brazil’s largest Afro-Brazilian population, the northeast region of Bahia maintains deep ties to its African origins – especially when it comes to cooking. From searing pots of bean batter to coconut patties and moqueca (creamy seafood curry served with rice cooked in coconut milk), Bahia's piquant dishes (liberally spiced with coconut milk and soaked in aromatic palm oil or dênde) are a source of national pride and locals of every persuasion undertake the creation of native specialties with ritualistic fervor. Other traditional Bahian dishes include vatapá (a spicy shrimp purée made with palm oil and nuts) and carurú de camarão, a dish composed of fresh and dried shrimp and sliced okra, and laced with a hot malagueta sauce*. One of Bahia’s most popular street foods, acarajé is made from fradinho beans mashed with shrimp and then deep fried and should always be paired with a beer for a finer appreciation.

*A note about malagueta: Sometimes this unique hot sauce is added directly to the dish in the kitchens and your waiter will ask you if you like your food quente (spicy hot). Until your palette is accustomed to the combined palette searing ferocity of the dendê and malaguetawe would advise you to decline.

Normally dressed in white hand woven ‘meringue’ style dresses, Bahian women (Bainas) are virtuoso confectioners with a particular knack for conjuring sweets (from coconut, eggs, ginger, milk, cinnamon and lemon). Headlining the Baiana’s menu of diet-busting delicacies are: the cocada, a sugared coconut dessert (when in doubt, Brazilians keep adding sugar) flavored with ginger or lemon; ambrosia, made with egg yolks and vanilla; and quindim, a pretty yellow pudding featuring that essential Brazilian combination of sugar, egg yolks and coconut.

Food in Tiradentes

The town of Tiradentes in Minas Gerais is not only one of the most beautifully preserved colonial towns in Brazil, it’s also a gastronomic powerhouse. Tiradentes boasts a constellation of five-star studded restaurants, an impressive feat for a town with a population just shy of 8,000. The town’s bacchanalian tendencies reach their zenith each August during the Festival Cultura e Gastronomia Tiradentes.

Food in Minas Gerais

A state settled largely by European immigrants, Minas Gerais is the place to satisfy your craving for comfort food. Traditionalists at heart, mineiros like to feast on the unadorned, hearty fare served in the castles and convents of medieval Portugal; slow cooked strews with lashings of chicken, sausage and pork prepared with beans and cassava rounded off by a cheese board (pãodequeijoor an an egg- and sugar-based dessert, all washed down with a selection of local liquors. Another great mineiro ritual is the quitanda: baked goods, pies and sandwiches (biscoitos, bolos, pães, tortas) which are usually served as round-the-clock snacks in cafés.

Feijoada

An unlikely national dish, this robust stew rich in offal and entrails (beef tongue, dried beef, chorizo sausage, pig's ears, pig's feet, bacon and more) is served in iron cauldrons (or your own personal Dutch oven) on wooden tables accompanied by that ubiquitous Latin food group unto itself: rice and beans. Brazilians like to pretty up the not so aesthetically pleasing stew with orange slices (which allegedly cuts the calories and helps digestion), sprinkle it with a spoonful of farofa (a butter-browned manioc flour that has the texture of sawdust) and then serve it with crunchy pork cracklings and fresh shredded kale.

Codfish

Loved and loathed in equal measure, codfish lends itself to a myriad of hot and cold recipes when desalted and hydrated in water and/or milk. There’s the more crowd-pleasing Mediterranean-style rendition (baked with tomatoes, onions, olive oil and rice) or Latin style (battered and fried with rice and black beans). If you don’t want to commit to a full on entrée, a great entry point is the bolinha de bacalhau. One of Brazil's favorite bar snacks, the humble cod fritter provides the litmus test for any neighborhood bar or boteca worth its salt and is the ideal accompaniment to a chilled bottle of beer. The perfect cod fritter is feather light with a crispy (not greasy) crust and a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth center. In Brazil, bolinhos de bacalhau are always served with fresh lime, often alongside a dipping source (of the mayo family). Never commit a faux pas and use your hands to eat them; always stab artfully with a toothpick, dip if desired, then pop the ball (in its entirety) into your mouth. It’s a safe bet to apply this etiquette to all communal appetizers.

Moqueca

Arguably, Brazilian cuisine reaches its zenith with the 300-year-old seafood stew: moqueca. The Bahiana rendition gives a nod to the region’s African influences; fish, lobster and shrimp are flavored with coconut milk, tomatoes, coriander, garlic, onions and palm oil, stewed in a traditional clay pot and then served over rice with farofa and pirão, a fish sauce-based mash. A slightly different version is bobó de camarão, which features manioc (cassava) along with coconut milk and shrimp.

Pizza Paulistana

With the highest Italian population outside Italy (around 6.5 million including descendants), it comes as no surprise that Italian food is one of the pillars of São Paulo’s culinary landscape. While many recipes remain true to the motherland’s epicurean heritage, the city’s famed pizza: Pizza Paulistana leaves tradition at the door, with great success; the result is not to be missed. Served in more than 6,000 pizzerias across the city, Pizza Paulistana is a fabulous fusion of decadent Italian flavors with a Brazilian twist; instead of mozzarella your crust (drizzled with tomato) may be generously topped with catupiry cheese, (a cream cheese distinct to Brazil) and often paired with hearty chunks of chicken or pork. Again, when it comes to pizza protocol, strict rules apply. Pizza is traditionally eaten on Sunday, it’s always eaten with a knife and fork, and it’s usually washed down with a local draft beer.

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