When I think of traditional Brazilian food, I think of meat. Piles of it. It arrives on skewers or platters, and you skip the salad bar and vegetable dishes to save room for endless servings of barbecued protein.
Perhaps needless to say, I have not yet been to Brazil. I haven’t even actually been to Fogo de Chão or any of the other Brazilian barbecue restaurants that have become popular in cities across the US in recent years.
According to the Fogo de Chão website, “our Gaucho chefs still expertly grill each of our sixteen cuts of meat and offer you continuous tableside service.” This fits perfectly with the all-you-can-eat expectations of Americans, but I wonder how well this type of meat-based culinary feast fits in with the traditional foods and dining styles enjoyed by native Brazilians?
Also, according to the website, Fogo de Chão provides diners with churrasco, “the Gaucho way of roasting meats over pits of open fire for delicious barbecues, which is always present at every festive occasion, especially family gatherings.
The young boys would learn how to grill the meats the Gaucho way from their fathers, becoming the caretakers of a culinary tradition passed down from generation to generation for over three centuries.” Seemingly authentic, yes, at least as a special treat… But this is only one type of traditional Brazilian food cuisine, and an (perhaps) Americanized version at that.
Seeking out Brazilian tradition
I wanted to know more. In general, with the exception of Peru, I’m mostly unfamiliar with the wonders of most styles of South American cooking, so this was going to require a bit of research.
Brazil is a place known for its diversity, its annual Carnival celebrations, its soccer players and fans. There are beaches and barrios, rain forests and rivers, cities and rural areas. Like the people, the food is diverse, with regional variations and a rich history throughout the country that influences everyday life today.
A rich, though troubled history
Portuguese colonists first arrived in Brazil in the early 1500s, and European culture and dining styles began to mesh with that of the indigenous people. And when I say “mesh,” that’s putting it so mildly that this isn’t really what I actually mean at all.
When the colonists’ original plans to find precious metals in this new region of conquest failed, they turned to agricultural production instead. Rather than heading back to Europe, they were going to get whatever they could out of the land, at any expense.
The Portuguese colonists took native captors, forcing them into slave labor to farm the land. When it was determined that this workforce wasn’t enough, slaves were brought from Africa.
The cuisine of the Brazilian people morphed and melded over hundreds of years, taking on the characteristics of many different cultural backgrounds and incorporating elements of the cuisine (as well as some native plants) from Europe and Africa.
Super food central
You’ve probably heard of the açaí berry, but chances are you haven’t seen a fresh one. Because they’re difficult to ship, those living outside Brazil tend to buy this antioxidant-rich berry, touted as a “super food” in recent years, either dried or in the form of frozen juice. This is because it’s a delicate form of produce (as all berries are) and difficult to ship.
One wonders, since we don’t typically have access to this “miracle” berry as a fresh item, are we in fact able to truly benefit from its “super food” qualities?
It’s a hard berry, typically eaten by indigenous Amazonian people for a burst of energy. Long before the current super food trend, Brazilian surfers and other athletes first touted the energy-boosting benefits of the berry for marketing purposes in the 1980s. It rapidly gained popularity throughout the country and beyond. Today, you’ll find it all over Brazil in juices, desserts, and even as a flavoring for vodka.
According to a piece by John Colapinto printed in The New Yorker in 2011, the pulp has “… a creamy texture and an earthy flavor, with hints of unsweetened chocolate.” Acai grows wild across the Amazon River delta, where native ribeirinhos or “river people” pick the fruit, soak the berries to soften them, and scrape the pulp from the pits. This is used in fish dishes, or it can be eaten on its own, more like a soup than a juice.
Colapinto claims açaí “is so ubiquitous in the local diet that the ribeirinhos do not consider a meal complete if it does not contain the fruit.”
How to drink your way through Brazil
Back to that mention of açaí’s use as a flavoring for alcohol: A discussion of the traditional Brazilian food would not be complete without a mention of cachaça. This potent alcoholic beverage is made from fermented cane juice. It’s similar to rum, which is made with molasses (a byproduct of sugar production,) rather than the fresh cane juice .
This type of booze, so trendy today throughout Brazil as well as Europe and the US, was invented by Portuguese settlers in Brazil. Like most plantation-based sugar and alcohol production, this type of liquor has a dark past.
According to Cocktail Times, “[the] history of cachaça goes back to 400 year[s] ago when plantation owners began serving the liquid to their slaves after noticing that [it] would increase vigor.” Slavery was banned in Brazil in 1888. It wasn’t until the 1920s that cachaça first became associated with national pride.
Cachaça is often used in caipirinhas, the national cocktail of Brazil. To make your own at home, mix a shot of cachaça with the juice of a lime, add sugar to taste and serve over ice. Cachaça is sometimes served before or after meals, as an appetite stimulant or digestif. It’s even used traditionally in candomble religious rituals.
Bar food time
What would a good cocktail be without some delicious bar food to go along with it? Local favorites include mandioca frita, or fried manioc. Also referred to as cassava, manioc is a Brazilian staple in the same way that potatoes (and French fries) are so popular in the US. Different varieties of this tuber exist throughout the country, some of which are bitter and toxic when raw.
Extensive processing is required to remove the toxins from these varieties of cassava. This traditionally involves peeling the cassava, grating it, and then hanging the pulp in woven tubes made from plant fibers to allow the poisonous juice to drain out, kind of like we might use cheesecloth for separating the solids from the liquid in the cheese making process.
Once it has been made edible, the pulp is often further processed into flour, or toasted (sometimes with bacon fat!) and made into a popular condiment called farofa. Sweet manioc does not contain these toxins, so it can be fried or boiled and then eaten without the need for further processing.
Bolinhos de bacalhau or fried balls of salt cod are another popular type of Brazilian bar food. Salt cod, another food that’s traditionally from Portugal, is soaked overnight and then poached. Then it’s mashed with potato and egg, formed into balls and deep-fried. Yum!
Time for some fish stew
Seafood is an important element of the traditional Brazilian food. Moqueca is probably the most popular variety of Brazilian fish stew. It exists in different variations throughout the country, using different ingredients or types of seafood depending on the region.
Though everyone has their own variation on the dish, it’s typically made with saltwater fish, coconut milk, tomato, onions, garlic, and dendé or palm oil. This type of oil is deep orange or red in color, due to high concentrations of carotenes in the pulp of the fruit from which it is derived.
Studies have shown that dendé can contain up to fifteen times as much beta carotene as carrots! It’s also rich in vitamin E and antioxidants. Unfortunately, it’s also a highly saturated fat, and we all know those have gotten a bad rap in recent years.
Dendé has a somewhat strong flavor that can’t be easily substituted, though this is sometimes done by adding crushed annato to peanut or other types of oil, to at least replicate the color.
Matt Troost, chef at Three Aces in Chicago, describes the flavor as “somewhere between nutty and grassy, unlike anything he's familiar with… not particularly strong or offensive… but it is very distinctive.” It lends the stew a unique flavor that just can’t be achieved using any other type of oil or spice.
Particularly popular in the Brazilian state of Bahia, dendè comes from the fruit of the African Oil Palm. This is not to be confused with palm kernel oil, which is extracted from the seeds rather than the fruit of the same plant. These trees were originally brought to Brazil along with slaves from Africa.
What could be more traditional than pork and beans?
Feijoada is known as the national dish of Brazil, extremely popular and held in high regard throughout the country. It’s a stew made with black beans, sausage (often the Portuguese choriço or linguica) and smoked or salted pork, often the less desirable cuts and bits like ears and trotters.
Feijão is Portuguese for beans, the base of this dish. Making this stew is a time-consuming process, sometimes taking a full day or more to do everything from soaking the beans to “desalting” the pork.
Water is changed repeatedly over the course of a day or so, in the same manner used to prepare salt cod for cooking in other dishes. The soaking water is changed every couple of hours to decrease the salt content of the meat.
Feijoada is usually served with rice, collard greens or kale, and orange slices. Brazilians love to top it with farofa. It was once thought that this traditional dish originally came out of the slave culture of Brazil, since it was a hearty dish made from unwanted scraps and basic dietary staples.
In recent years, this idea has been refuted by Brazilian scholars who claim the unwanted meat “scraps” were actually considered highly desirable by Europeans at the time. Experts now believe the dish more closely resembles a classic European stew, like Portuguese cozido, also made with pork and beans.
Most Brazilians today eat feijoada outside the home in restaurants and bars, rather than taking the time to make it themselves. An important part of the culture is that this dish is typically only eaten on Saturdays. Here’s why: Saturday is feijoada day. It’s as simple as that. To be a bit more specific, the dish was once considered the traditional Sunday meal, but has since transformed (in the past fifty years or so) into a new tradition- Saturday lunch.
Since this transition occurred, Saturday has remained the traditional day for serving the dish, though you can find restaurants that specialize in feijoada and serve it every day. After eating all that feijoada, you’re probably going to want to take the traditional Saturday afternoon nap.
According to an article printed in the New York Times nearly thirty-five years ago, but which still holds true in many ways today, “Everyone has his own favorite feijoada restaurant find, and as long as there is a Brazil there will be a debate between those who think the meal is only authentic with the meat served in an earthen pot of black bean stew, and those who will not touch it unless the meat is served separately.”
This article touches on an important point- tradition, and the concept of authenticity is an ever-changing thing, altered over time by a variety of influences. And yet, at least the basics of a dish like feijoada remain central to the national cuisine.
Traditional Brazilian Food by the Kilo
In Brazil, it’s common to dine at a Restaurante por quilo, or a restaurant where traditional Brazilian dishes are sold by the kilo. You just serve yourself from the buffet and then weigh your plate.
Again, this seems similar to the dining style presented at Fogo de Chão, with its salad bar and green card that you place face up on your table to begin the flow of meat, (provided tableside rather than buffet-style), ceaselessly brought to your table in waves until you flip that card over to show its red side instead.
Rather than limiting consumption or bothering to weigh the food, Fogo de Chão has a set price—currently $61.50 per person in Beverly Hills (the priciest Fogo de Chão location in the US) for a seemingly endless meat-heavy dinner, or $32.50 for the salad bar only, ($48.50/$24.50 in other locations in the US, as a point of comparison)—which consists of “over 30 items including fresh cut vegetables, imported cheeses, cured meats and Brazilian side dishes.”
The restaurant actually has nine locations in Brazil, some of which are celebrating their thirty-fifth anniversary (prices were not available for these locations, but I would be interested in having this information as a point of comparison).
According to an article on “The ‘Kilo’ Restaurant Phenomenon” printed in The Rio Times in 2010, “Price also depends largely on the location of the restaurant, as the price of one kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of food ranges widely, from as little as R$16 to as much as R$60 across the city.” This is a range of about $5-19 (USD) per kilo, far less expensive than that sold by the upscale restaurant chain.
The Fogo de Chão page detailing the history of the restaurant on the Brazilian version of the site is a little different than that found on the American site. The restaurant started as a Brazilian chain before expansion to the US, aiming to create a traditional Brazilian steakhouse “that would differ from the others.”
The founders of Fogo de Chão, brothers from Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil, aimed to serve a new demographic. Serving what was once the food of rural people and truckers who frequented roadside stands, their aim was to serve “the suits of the financial centers” and “CEOs” a more elevated style of Brazilian barbecue.
Though this is unfortunately a poor translation, the basic concepts are not hard to comprehend. The Brazilian site describing the history of the restaurant states, “The tradition of running skewer is a fairly new phenomenon. Famous since the 60s in the southern region of the country, the system also known as carvery allows them… [to enjoy] all cuts available in the house, usually served on a skewer itself…”
The founders of the restaurant themselves make it clear that this time-honored tradition is in fact recently derived, at least in comparison to other types of traditional cuisine found throughout the country.
One last sip of yerba mate
You’d think, after all this discussion of acai vodka, cachaça and caipirinhas, that that would be enough in the traditional Brazilian drinks department, but there’s one more immensely popular drink to top it all off- yerba mate. Again, it’s another traditionally Brazilian item that’s become hugely popular in the US and around the world in recent years, again touted for its ability to energize whoever drinks it.
It’s traditionally made from leaves of caá and drunk by indigenous people, essentially as a tea. But did you know it’s traditionally consumed with a great sense of ritual (often in what’s referred to as a Chimarrão circle), made in a very specific way, and drunk from a tiny gourd or cuia? There’s a lot of history there. Perhaps I’ll have to go into more detail in another article…
What are some of your favorite types of Brazilian cuisine? How does dining at Fogo de Chão or other Brazilian restaurants found in the US compare to dining in Brazil? What’s your favorite Brazilian dish? Let me know in the comments!