How to Eat and Drink Your Way Through Brazil
Our friend Max Bonem likes to travel and he likes to eat. He recently did both of those things in Brazil, and was kind enough to share his thoughts on the experience. Herewith, the six dishes and drinks you need to try if you find yourself visiting this rising star in the southern hemisphere.
Three thousand miles south of the United States resides a population quite possibly more diverse than our own. Descendants of the Amazonian natives, along with people from Portugal, Africa, and the Caribbean make up one of the world’s true melting pots. For travelers, this is a beautiful thing. Not just in terms of the diversity of the warm, welcoming people you meet walking the streets of enchanting Brazilian cities, but also because of the incredible food that comes with it.
I ventured to Brazil knowing little about the local cuisine, only what I’d learned from reading up on Chef Alex Atala and his legendary São Paulo restaurant D.O.M. (just named one of the world’s 10 best restaurants for the fifth year in a row.) Like much of South America, Brazil is currently experiencing a culinary renaissance and Brazilian-born, foreign-trained chefs are embracing the unique ingredients and traditions of their homeland. Brazilian food isn’t famed for its complexity. Instead, it’s the comforting simplicity of Brazilian food that makes it so goddamn good.
Although I’m by no means an expert, this is definitely a great starting place for learning to appreciate the salty and sweet, crunchy and chewy cuisine that makes Brazil such a delicious place to explore.
When exploring the beaches of Rio de Janeiro (preferably in the morning before it gets too hot) there is only one way to start your day: with a refreshing açai bowl. Although açai has taken the United States by storm over the past few years, this superfruit has been satisfying Brazilian appetites for years, as it’s both incredibly good for you and absolutely delicious.
Served in its puréed form (like a really thick smoothie) and then topped with granola and extra fruit, an açai bowl is the perfect thing to help wash away the previous night’s celebrations (this is Brazil, you will have lots of late nights while visiting) and get you in the right mindset for watching the beautiful cariocas all day on the beach.
It seems like no Brazilian meal can begin without some kind of bolinho. Similar to a croquette or arancini, bolinhos are the most common appetizer across Brazil, whether you’re at a restaurant or boteco or in someone’s home.
Although there are an endless variety of fried options, bolinhos de bacalhau are some of the most tasty and popular. A combination of mashed potato, codfish, herbs, and eggs, these fried wonders are best accompanied by a drizzle of lemon and some pimenta for a bit of spice. Enjoy with an ice cold Brahma and repeat as needed.
If there’s one thing Brazil is known for the world over, it’s their love of all things meat. Churrascarias, the all-you-can-eat-protein-palaces found throughout Brazil and made famous internationally by Fogo de Chão, are temples of worship for all things grilled and meaty. You might think you can handle a lot of meat, but there is nothing that can prepare you for the abundant cuts of meat that waiters bring directly to your seat, depending on which token you’re displaying: green (more meat please!) or red (please, no more meat!). All of the churrasco is fresh, hot, very well seasoned and best enjoyed with a glass of wine or any of number of cocktails available throughout the country. Speaking of which...
The best cocktails blow you away with their effortless simplicity and the caipirinha – the national cocktail of Brazil – is truly a bomb. Made with just four ingredients (cachaça, sugar, lime, and ice) caipirinhas can be found in almost every bar and restaurant in Brazil. I assure you, even if you somehow stumble upon an establishment without a caipirinha on the menu, someone will make you one if you ask nicely.
Although enjoying a caipirinha anywhere is better than not having one at all, sipping one (or two or six) on the beach in Rio de Janeiro cannot be topped. Even better, you don’t even have to leave your chair or canga. Wherever you find yourself on the beach, you have hundreds of beach bars at your beck and call or you can flag down one of the many wandering caipirinha men to quench your thirst and further your buzz. All from the comfort of your sandy seat.
As diverse as Brazil is, there’s a clear favorite for the one dish that best represents the nation as a whole. Feijoada, a black bean stew cooked with a variety of meats, dates back to less prosperous times in Brazil. But, like many dishes born out of hardship, feijoada has become a national favorite.
When I went to Brazil, feijoada was at the very top of my list of dishes to try. The cauldron of stew I had in the Lapa neighborhood of Rio did not disappoint. Accompanied by rice, couve à mineira (Brazilian-style collard greens), orange slices, and farofa, opening the pot of feijoada enveloped me in a flavorful cloud of the gods. The aroma of the black beans, sausage, and carne seca was a perfume that I carried with me for hours after. I might not understand Brazil fully, but with each bite of feijoada I felt like I was getting slightly closer.
One of my favorite things about culinary travel is discovering types of produce that simply don’t exist in the United States. With its unique climate and ecosystem, Brazil produces an insane amount of fruits and vegetables that would look alien if found on an American menu, especially those pulled out of the Amazon. However, one of my favorite dishes of the trip came in the form of an almost familiar vegetable.
Jiló, or scarlet eggplant, is a smaller, greener version of the large purple eggplants found throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. I experienced it firsthand during a weekend stay in Belo Horizonte — a city with nearly 12,000 botecos, the ubiquitous Brazilian bar/café hybrid that I wish would catch on in the States. On one of Belo’s steep, nondescript streets resides Silvio’s Bar, one of several botecos in the area, but the only one to serve jiló á milanesa com parmesão. You want this, you want this very, very bad. Essentially it’s a handheld version of eggplant parmesan, but with a brighter, fresher flavor radiating from the jiló. Hot, crunchy, and cheesy, jiló á milanesa com parmesão might not be as popular as some other Brazilian side dishes, but those who call the state of Minas Gerais home will make sure you get a taste of jiló while you’re visiting and you should be very thankful for this. Very thankful indeed. [H]