Brazilian restaurants outside of the country aren't often bastions of gourmet delight; the ubiquitous all-you-can-eat steakhouses usually set the gastronomic bar somewhere just above buffet.
But within Brazil's diverse borders, the country's rich cooking heritage, a vibrant patchwork sewn from culinary traditions of the Portuguese, Africa and the country's own native Indians, is one of the most diverse on earth. Throw a wave of immigrant tastes into the mix - namely Italian, German, Arab and Japanese influences - and Brazilian cuisine is a wicked witches’ brew that stretches well beyond an endless line of rotisserie grilled meats.
While food is always a highlight of any trip to the South American workhouse, many dishes are lost on visitors for no other reason than culinary ignorance, a travel crime punishable by bland entrees and disappointing desserts. Don't let your taste buds get caught high and dry. Here are three don't-miss dishes that pack a wallop of flavour – and history – into their recipes.
Brazil's national dish is normally reserved for Saturday afternoons, though more touristy areas will feature it other days of the week as well. Done right it's quite a production; a dozen or so piping hot cauldrons set across a table indicate a feast of Biblical proportions is about to commence. What's in those things? Well, a selection of hearty stews, each featuring different types of smoked and sun-fried meats cooked with black beans, served alongside rice, kale, orange slices and butter-browned manioc flour (known as farofa).
It was once believed to have been a luxury dish for African slaves in Brazil as it was cheap to make and featured scrap meat cuts that coffee barons and colonial conquerors would have otherwise tossed. Maybe. But more popular conventional culinary wisdom indicates feijoada is derived from European stews, namely the traditional Portuguese bean-and-pork dishes from the regions of Estremadura and Trás-os-Montes. Either way, find yourself a bowl of it, Saturday or not – it goes down well with a caipirinha!
Shrimp moqueca. Image by Wagner Fontoura / CC BY 2.0
Arguably Brazilian cuisine's finest moment, the moqueca is an amalgam that represents Brazil in a mouthful. With a base of African palm oil (dendê) and coconut milk (known as moqueca Bahiana) or olive oil instead (known as moqueca Capixaba), it's a lovely seafood stew that arrives swimming with fish, lobster, shrimp or any combination of the three, stewed in a traditional clay pot with onions, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro and served over rice with farofa and pirão, a fish sauce-based mash. You'll often find a fiery Bahian hot sauce made with sharp red malagueta peppers alongside as well. It's often said the moqueca has been prevalent on Brazilian dinner tables for 300 years, the Bahiana version steeped in African influences; the Capixaba version by native Indian cuisine, notably the pokeka, a simpler dish of fish and peppers roasted in banana leaves over hot coals.
This one might surprise a few folks, but yes, pizza – specifically pizza in São Paulo, known as pizza Paulistana – is outrageously good and not to be missed. A wave of immigration during the industrial revolution of the early 20th century brought scores of Italians to the city and São Paulo now boasts the highest Italian population outside Italy – some 6.5 million including descendants – and those folks brought their pizza recipes to the city while leaving their strict rules behind. As a result, pizza Paulistana is chock full of Italian goodness but often with a Brazilian twist, like Catupiry cheese, for example, a creamy cheese only found in Brazil that is often paired with chicken.
And eating pizza in the city is not without its rituals: it's traditionally eaten on Sunday, always with a knife and fork, often paired with Brazilian draft beer. There are over 6000 pizzerias in São Paulo to choose from, so it's easy to get lost amongst the mozzarella. Just remember this: Pizzaria Bráz, with outlets in Moema, Pinheiros and Higienópolis as well as two outlets in Rio de Janeiro, is often voted the city's best while Pizzeria Speranza, in Moema and Bixiga, has been making one of the world's best margarita pizza since 1958.