Brazil, the 2014 FIFA World Cup host country, is known for its rollicking festivals, street-wise, beat-heavy music and goes-on-forever coastline. It also boasts a distinctive cuisine.
But that’s not to say that it’s without influence. Brazilian food, rather, is an amalgam of the many cultures that make up its population. Influenced by Africa, Portugal, India and more, the Brazilian table is a tapestry of flavor.
Here’s just a small sampling of what Brazilians are eating on the streets, in restaurants and in the kitchens of South America’s largest country:
1. Acaraje: Almost every nation has its own dearly loved street food. In Egypt, it’s ful medames, in Mexico, the taco.
Brazil has the acaraje, a stuffed black-eyed pea fritter, seasoned with dried shrimp and onions and deep-fried in palm oil.
Acaraje is something like a Brazilian take on a falafel, though its heritage is distinctly African, owing to Brazil’s history as a slave-trade port. A version of the acaraje can be found on the streets of Nigeria.
Acaraje da Dinha is one of the most-frequented stands for the fritter, a locally beloved place Anthony Bourdain recently visited on his CNN series, Parts Unknown.
Bourdain ate his smeared with vatapa, a paste of bread crumbs, shrimp and coconut, and served with tomato salad and a wash of hot sauce. But acaraje can also come stuffed with a sort of okra stew called caruru de quiabo, or a salad of bacalao.
2. Feijoada (pronounced fay-JWA-da) is to Brazil what paella is to Spain or pasta is to Italy. There are many, many versions of the dish, and every Brazilian is likely to say their grandmother makes the best.
Essentially a black bean stew, feijoada is packed with enough meat to make a butcher blush. Brazil is not particularly known as a place of restraint, and its carnivorous dishes are no exception. See: churrasco.
Sérgio Porto, a Brazilian columnist, once acknowledged Brazil’s national dish’s reputation as a cardiac arrest in a cauldron. “Feijoada is only complete when you have to call an ambulance," he wrote.
“Feijoada is the most iconic dish of Brazil, and from my hometown, Rio de Janeiro,” says Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, author of The Brazilian Kitchen and My Rio de Janeiro.
There are two theories as to where the dish came from, according to Schwartz. The first is that it owes its makeup to a similar Portuguese stew called açorda.
“The other theory is that it was born during colonial times, when slaves would throw any leftover pieces of meat in their black beans,” says Schwartz. “What’s interesting is that, if you ask any Brazilian what the origin is, they don’t even care — they just want to eat.”
Within the murky depths of feijoada, you might find linguica sausage, paio (spicy pork sausage), bacon and dried beef. There may be smoked tongue, pig’s feet, ears or loin, too.
It’s all stewed slowly with beans, onions and garlic, and garnished with cilantro. Not enough for you? It often comes served with farofa, a toasted manioc flour mixture, rice, oranges and shredded collard greens. Take that, waistline.
3. Churrasco: This famous Brazilian barbecue is one trend that’s gaining steam outside of Brazil. It’s no wonder, really. The churrascuria, at least the type that adheres to the espeto corrido rodízio (literally barbecue spit-running) style of service, is a buffet of bacchanalian excess.
Servers wander like meat-bearing minstrels from table to table, carving slices from spit-roasted hunks of meat, including picanha (prime sirloin) and maminha (rump steak), until diners cry uncle.
Cowboy Brazilian Steakhouse in Charleston, S.C., is one restaurant that's embraced churrasco outside of Brazil. "It’s an interesting concept," said manager Robert Melton.
Melton says the meat-a-palooza begins when diners flip over a double-sided card to reveal green, a sign for the gauchos, or servers in Brazilian cowboy garb, to approach the table with any one of more than a dozen types of meat.
"It’s not the best place to come if you want a romantic dinner because there’s a lot of traffic coming to the table," Melton says.
People often eat for an hour and a half before flipping the card to red to beg the gauchos off, says Melton. "A lot of people come in and try to eat us out of house and home. But halfway through the meal, they get this glazed look on their faces like, 'What have I done?’"
4. Moqueca Baiana: Like the acaraje, moqueca is a Bahia Afro-Brazilian specialty. The seafood stew, spiced with chilies and mellowed with coconut milk and lime, also owes its history to Portugal. The Portuguese, intrepid explorers that they were, introduced the coconut palm to Brazil, which they had culled from Asia. They also introduced African slaves, the descendants of whom populate the state of Bahia.
That world of flavors comes together in one clay pot to make this distinctive fisherman’s stew.
According to Schwartz, moqueca is generally served with farofa, even though it usually also comes with rice.
“Brazilians have a tendency to eat more than one carb as a side dish,” she says. “My husband from America will never understand why we eat rice and potatoes, or rice and farofa.”
Farofa, she says, is too delicious to worry about such as thing as too many carbs, anyway. “In Brazil, we learn to eat our food without thinking of carbs and calories. We don’t care that there’s already rice. We want our farofa.“
5. Pamonha: A type of tamale, the pamonha is made with a paste of sweet Brazilian corn, often stuffed with meat or cheese.
“This is a very typical dish from the central region of Brazil, though you see corn all over,” says Schwartz.
The street-food staple is sometimes stuffed with meat or cheese, much like its Mexican cousin, the tamale. “The difference is that the tamales from Mexico are used with the dry husk of the corn, while we prepare ours with the fresh husk,” she says.
Furthermore, Brazilian pamonhas are boiled rather than steamed. And often, they’re scarfed down as-is, right in the street — as some of the best food in the world is consumed.
“The sauces go on the side because you have to open the husk, but the sauces aren’t something very iconic to the dish,” says Schwartz. “You buy it on the street open the husk and just eat it in a napkin."
Want to try this one at home? Here's an easy recipe, courtesy of Brazilian Food: Traditional Brazilian Recipes.
12 large ears of corn with husks
1 cup of warm olive oil
1 pinch of salt
Small slices of cheese (optional)
Husk the corn carefully to preserve the leaves and make small envelopes with them that you can close and tie shut.
Grate the corn in a large bowl then add the salt and oil.
Fill the envelopes with this paste and put a slice of cheese on top. Tie shut and place in a large pan.
Completely cover with boiling water and simmer on medium heat for about 1 hour.