Unlike its football or musical heritage, Brazilian cuisine has yet to take its place on the world stage. But that's just fine with many Brazilians - they're happy to keep their tacacá and bobó de camarão to themselves. Obscure it may be, but Brazilian cuisine does not lack variety. Brazil is the home of mouth-watering seafood (from both the Atlantic coast and the Amazon), juicy steaks and sinfully delicious street food, with a wide range of influences: West African, indigenous and European. Here's a run-down of the top regional dishes to taste on your trip to Brazil.
Fiery flavours of the northeast
Home to the country's largest Afro-Brazilian population, the northeast has deep ties to its African origins, particularly when it comes to cooking. Coconut milk, aromatic palm oil and fiery malagueta peppers feature prominently in Bahian dishes. These ingredients are put to fine use in moqueca, a rich seafood stew that has become the country's most famous dish. A slightly different version is bobó de camarão, which features manioc (cassava) along with coconut milk and shrimp. It is quite similar to the West African dish Ipetê. Another Bahian classic is acarajé (fritters made of mashed beans, with dried and fresh shrimp), often available as a street snack in places like Salvador.
Baianos (people from Bahia) also have a serious sweet tooth. Quindim is a popular egg custard-like dessert with grated coconut, while cocadas are cookie-sized patties made of coconut and brown sugar. Pudim de leite is similar to flan but made with condensed milk. Pé-de-moleque is a dark peanut brittle sometimes made with molasses. Bolos, or cakes, come in many varieties and sometimes feature manioc (cassava) flour, a Brazilian staple.
In the drought-prone interior of the Northeast (known as the Sertão), the African influence is less prominent and simple dishes dominate. The most famous plate is carne seca (also called carne do sol), a flavourful sun-dried beef, developed as a means of preserving beef in this hard-scrabble region.
Iconic stews of the southeast
The state of Minas Gerais (General Mines) was named after the gold and diamond mines that flourished here in the colonial period, and the regional dishes of today still showcase simple, belly-filling ingredients that were popular in the 19th century. The humble feijão (bean) is king here (with pork and kale making fine accompaniments). Tutu a mineiro features mashed beans, while feijão tropeiro contains whole beans and is sometimes served with eggs, sausage and pork chops.
Rio de Janeiro's major contribution to the national cuisine is feijoada, which is found at any self-respecting Brazilian restaurant. According to legend, the black-bean and pork stew was developed by slaves in Bahia and first popularized in Rio in the late 19th century (in truth, the dish has roots dating back to Europe and was brought over by the Portuguese). Smoked and fresh pork of many varieties are melded with black beans then served over rice and sprinkled with farofa (made from toasted manioc flour); it's served with shredded kale and sliced oranges, and best accompanied by a caipirinha or three. In Rio, it's traditionally served on Saturday (though one restaurant, Casa da Feijoada, serves it every day of the week) and is usually the only meal eaten on that day.
São Paulo is home to the country's largest immigrant community, who contribute to the city's incredibly diverse dining scene. Japanese and Italian cuisines are top-notch here, and pizzas fired up in a wood-burning oven have become a Paulista passion.
Barbecue banquets in the south
In the south, the dishes show pronounced European influence, a result of its historic German and Italian settlements. Blumenau, founded by German colonists in 1850, throws the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany, while Italian families have helped transform the Vale dos Vinhedos into the nation's premier wine regions.
In the pampas, or grasslands, which extend through Rio Grande do Sul (and into Uruguay and Argentina), gaúcho, or cowboy culture lives on in churrasco - barbecued steak, fired up on spits or over a sizzling grill. Churrascarias (or all-you-can-eat barbecue restaurants) have become a much-loved Brazilian institution and are found everywhere in the country (and are sprouting up all over the globe). Pride of place goes to picanha, a tender cut of meat (somewhat similar to top sirloin) that's difficult to come by outside of Brazil.
The Amazon: paradise for pescatarians
The cuisine from this vast region (comprising the north and west of the country) has been heavily influenced by its indigenous heritage. One of the best-known dishes is pato no tucupi, marinated and roasted duck that's served with tucupi - a sauce made of grated manioc and seasoned with chicory and jambú leaves. The latter incidentally, produces a faint tingling or numbness in the lips and tongue. Jambú also appears in tacacá, a fragrant and complex soup containing dried shrimp and tapioca, topped with tucupi sauce.
Piranhas aside (which are also eaten in abundance), the Amazon harbours some incredibly flavourful fish, including the much-prized tambaquí, tucunaré (peacock bass), the meaty pirarucú (which can grow over 2m long) and various catfish (surubim, caparari and filhote). Filhote, incidentally are juvenile versions of piraíba, the largest fish in the Amazon (capable of reaching 3m in length, and over 200kg in weight).
Salivating at the thought of a Brazilian barbecue? Work up an appetite with Lonely Planet's Brazil guide book.