SÃO PAULO, Feb 28 — The largest and the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America, Brazil is home to an incredible diversity of foods and flavours, a result of colonisation by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century as well as the arrival of many other cultures, such as the Italians and the Spanish, the Africans and Arabs, and even the Chinese and Japanese. (Did you know that Liberdade in São Paulo is home to the largest Japanese community in the world outside Japan?)
Yet if you read the news these days, all you may learn of Brazil is the Zika virus outbreak, already linked to birth defects in thousands of babies in the country. The sight of all those crying newborns and their distraught mothers is heartbreaking. This outbreak puts a great strain on the Brazilians but they are a tenacious people, as brave as the flavours of their diverse foods.
Many of my friends who were thinking of visiting Brazil have changed their minds because of the virus. This is understandable, of course, but it’s such a shame for them to associate that beautiful country with this disease. Brazil has much to offer the world at large; beyond the vast Amazon rainforests and the upcoming Olympics, beyond football and samba, Brazil will always be about its people, their culture and their unique cuisine.
And Brazilian cuisine isn’t confined to their borders, even if you’re travel-leery. One popular health food that seems to be everywhere these days is the açaí bowl, a thick, antioxidant-rich smoothie that you eat with a spoon. Guess what? That bowl of açaí? That’s Brazilian too.
Traditionally eaten by Amazonian tribes for energy, the purple açaí berry is a nutrient-dense superfood that is now blended with almond milk, oatmeal and other fruits to create a sweet, gloopy breakfast-of-champions (and desserts, too).
So for those of you who are curious, what other Brazilian delicacies await you when you visit?
Start the day in neighbourhood padarias (bakeries), where you can get a cup of coffee to go with your pão francês (soft breads). Most Brazilians will get their caffeine fix in the form of a cafezinho, which means “a little coffee” in Brazilian Portuguese. (“Little” isn’t a description for their national coffee bean production though; Brazil is the largest global producer of coffee beans — an astounding 2,720,520,000 kilogrammes of beans in 2014!)
This tiny and intense cup is not unlike a shot of espresso... except it’s very, very sweet. You can also have cafezinho with hot fresh milk, condensed milk and even a puffy dollop of milk foam. A generous dash of cinnamon? Go ahead. However you choose to have it, the cafezinho will always be pre-sweetened and any requests for it to be sans sugar may be met with an incredulous stare.
Still feeling peckish by mid-morning? Then do what Brazilians do and locate a stall selling fried bar snacks such as pastéis, deep-fried pastry pockets stuffed with minced meat or gooey cheese, and pão de queijo, soft and chewy cheese breads made with tapioca flour, eggs and queijo Minas (a type of cow’s milk cheese).
Come lunchtime, head to the lanchonete (a local casual diner found at nearly every street corner) for some serious belly-filling. Food halls found inside covered markets are another good bet for lunch, as they get their meat and produce fresh from the butchers and greengrocers in the market.
Those with lighter appetites can try bauru, a traditional Brazilian sandwich filled with roast beef, sliced mortadela ham, mozzarella cheese, sun-ripened tomatoes and even pickled cucumber for a bit of tang. It’s hardly modest in size so “lighter appetites” is a relative concept here.
Brazil’s national dish is feijoada, a hearty stew of black beans, sausages and pork that is usually served with rice, pork crackling and conserva de pimenta (pickled chillies). A popular topping for the feijoada is farofa, toasted cassava flour that is mixed with egg, smoked meat and spices. Feijoada also goes well with feijão tropeiro, or Cattleman’s Beans, a traditional farmer’s dish of sautéed beans with scallions, egg, and bacon.
Wash down this buckle-bursting lunch with some chilled guaraná, a soft drink made with the extract of the climbing guaraná plant native to the Amazon rainforests. Guaraná has quite a bit of caffeine so popular brands such as Guaraná Antarctica and Kuat provide Brazilians with a much needed pick-me-up after a heavy lunch.
The afternoon is siesta time in Brazil but if you have a sweet tooth, you might be leave the comforts of a sofa in search of a decent torta de banana or Brazilian banana tart. A simple pastry with caramelised fried bananas as its filling, this dessert is, as with many other Brazilian dishes, very sweet, so a little goes a long way. (Especially when you realise the cafezinho you ordered to go with it will be just as sweet...)
Dinnertime for Brazilians start late, well after sundown. Don’t be surprised to see locals heading out for their evening meal around nine at night. Join them as they visit their favourite churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse where meat is barbecued Portuguese style (churrasco).
Kick things off with a freshly made caiprinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. Made with cachaça (fermented sugarcane juice), sugar and fresh fruits such as lime, cajá or maracujá (passion fruit), caiprinha is supposed to have been created around 1918 in São Paulo for Spanish flu patients. The original recipe called for lime, garlic and honey, but today the drink is prepared by muddling the fruit and sugar together before adding the cachaça.
Most churrascarias offer rodízio service. This means you pay a preço fixo (“fixed price”) and an army of passadores (“meat waiters”) will keep coming to your table with skewers of different cuts of barbecued meat until you flip the coaster on your table to the red side, signalling you’ve had quite enough.
In Brazil, good quality meat is rarely seasoned with anything more than salt before grilling. The most prized cut of beef is the picanha, which is the rump cover or coulotte. The fat is not removed from the cut until the steak has been cooked, thus flavouring the meat with its own delicious fats. You’d certainly do your best not to flip your coaster too quickly, if only to enjoy more picanha.
Hungry yet? Me, I’ll enjoy every spoon of my açaí bowl and celebrate the brave, beautiful people of Brazil and the wonderful flavours they’ve contributed to our world.