First, I want to make a disclaimer: my food and beverage preferences are decidedly odd in most cultural contexts, including the dominant food culture in the United States. I am most accurately described as a vegetarian, but I do eat seafood – perhaps a “pescetarian” is a more accurate description. I also have a lifelong quest to try every known fruit on the planet. And to top things off, I am a self-described coffee snob. I roast my own coffee beans at home and make my coffee in the form of espresso using a basic, but well-regarded espresso machine that has the correct, 205-degree water temperature. I control the water and ground coffee dwell time with a conical burr grinder so I don’t have to rely on a portofino (the thing you put the coffee into) with a built-in valve to do this work for me. When I say I know what good coffee tastes like, I can say so with some authority, but perhaps not as much as the people who run Sweet Marias.
With this basic premise defined, let me describe what I like and don’t like so much about Brazilian food and drink. First, the good.
Let me start by saying that Brazil is a tropical fruit paradise that is only matched, in my opinion, by countries in southeast Asia. Papayas are simply wonderful—especially the small ones, which can have an exquisite floral flavor that is difficult to describe, but truly exceptional. Sapotes have a flavor very much like sweet potatoes and brown sugar. I especially enjoy them on cereal. Atemoyas, which are a cross between a cherimoya and a sugar apple, are also very good. They don’t have quite the bubble-gum like flavor of a cherimoya, but are perhaps best described as more refined and nuanced. There are also plenty of guavas – the pink fleshed variety – that, in true guava fashion, smell a lot better than their relatively bland taste. Although not a fruit, I should also throw in that in Brazil (at least in Pernambuco) the standard sweet potato is the excellent “Japanese” variety with drier but much tastier flesh than the standard orange-fleshed sweet potato found in North American markets. (The only places I’ve found Japanese sweet potatoes in the US are where there is a Portugese-speaking population.)
I really like Brazilian breakfasts (at least the kind you find in pousadas or inns). Usual choices of food are fruit (papaya, cantaloupe, watermelon, mango, banana, pineapple), plantains, manioc root, granola, several kinds of breads and cakes, yogurt, cheese, ham, jams, milk, coffee, and fresh juices (acerola, cashew, orange, mango) spread out on a table. Typically, you eat in a place that is open to the outdoors so you have these nice gentle breezes in a lush tropical landscape. It’s a great way to start the day.
Brazil also has “burritos”, although none of the Brazilians here would describe them as such. Here’s how you make them: take some tapioca flour and put it directly into a heated pan with no oil. Magically, the tapioca flour melts together into a chewy, dough-like texture. You end up with a kind of tapioca tortilla or pancake which is called a beiju. Now throw in just about any kind of filling that you can imagine – cheese, bananas, butter, etc. When I was in Rio de Janeiro, I had an especially nice version filled with squash, ginger, and cashew nuts. Nummy.
Where you can find it, some of the Brazilian vegetarian foods are quite nice. My favorite so far is moqueca de banana da terra, which translates as “stew of plantains.” The version I like is made from plantains, red and green bell peppers, onions, spices, coconut milk, and olive oil. You serve it over rice and sprinkle tapioca flour on it. And, of course, beans and rice is very popular, but often has meat in it, in which case it is called feijoada. (As you might imagine, I prefer the vegetarian version.)
And Brazilians can definitely do seafood well. With a few exceptions (see below in the “not so good” entry), all of the seafood I’ve had here has been excellent. This shouldn’t be so surprising considering that most of the Brazilian population lives on the coast.
Brazilians definitely know how to do deserts, which are known as sobremesas (literally, “on the table”). My favorites are canjica, which is made from corn and natas, or egg custards in a pastry shell. (Technically, natas, which if you get them from the original source, are called pastel de Belém, are Portuguese, not Brazilian.) It can be hard to find a good nata, but I’ve located excellent sources in both Recife and Rio. Other tasty sobremesas are a kind of cake made from tapioca, which is nice and gooey, and passion fruit pudding (mousse de maracujá). I should also add that there’s also an interesting chocolate bar made from a different species of cocoa tree (Theobroma grandiflorum), called cupuaçu. It has a more complex flavor with more cocoa butter.
When you think of Brazilian alcohol, many people think of cachaça, which is a distilled liquor made from sugar cane. Not being a fan of hard alcohol, however, I cannot speak from any kind of experience if it is as good as people say. Instead, I’ve been rather impressed by some of the Brazilian beer and, quite surprisingly, wine.
If I’m a coffee snob, I’m also a bit of a beer snob. In particular, I like dark lagers – Vienna lager, dunkel, doppelbocks, schwarzbier. In the states, I discovered a Brazilian dark lager called “Xingu” after the river in Brazil, which surprised me because most tropical countries, in my experience, don’t typically make dark beers. Considering, however, the significant German influence in Brazil, this should not be not unusual. Suffice it to say that while Xingu is not the best dark lager I’ve tasted, it’s really quite good. Also making the beer list is a couple of offerings from Devasa – a “tropical ale” and a “dark ale”. Not being a particular fan of most ales, I found these ales to lack what is often an over-the-top fruity flavor in lighter ales and a syrupy quality in darker ales.
As far as wines, Brazil has quite nice offerings and some rather terrible ones. I have to admit that the first Brazilian wine I tasted was a white wine and it was really awful. I could not even finish it. As I’ve later learned, good Brazilian wine is often red and it reminds me a lot of some of the better American red wines I’ve tasted: a bit heavy on tannins, but dry with a sophisticated character. I’ll hazard a guess, but I believe that these red wines must be grown in the far southern regions of the country that have a temperate as opposed to a tropical climate. (I can’t imagine a cabernet sauvignon growing in the jungle.)
Lastly, there is coffee. I love the fact that coffee is a central part of Brazilian food culture. Unlike in the US, lots of people drink regular (non-decaf) coffee throughout the day and into the evening. In many work places, coffee is made in the morning and stored in carafes, which sit on tables next to every work space. During the day, people drink little plastic cups of this coffee. Many businesses also put out these coffee carafes for their customers or have espresso machines available. People either drink the coffee straight, or more commonly add sweetener, and sometimes milk (when it’s available). I definitely appreciate that Brazilians don’t seem to like the weak, watery American-style drip coffee. Instead, coffee here is either genuine espresso (made by a machine or on a stove top with a moka pot) or drip coffee brewed very strong.
And speaking of coffee, I should also mention that I am pleased to say that I have yet to encounter a Starbucks in Brazil. Starbucks coffee is just plain bad—it’s not made from freshly roasted beans, it’s brewed too hot, the beans are roasted too dark, and even the steamed milk is usually scorched. My theory is that because black coffee at Starbucks is so awful, most people prefer to get sugary, fat-filled drinks that hide its flavor. Most Brazilian coffee I’ve had is far better than what’s at this ubiquitous American chain.
While my overall gastronomic experience has been good, there have been some exceptions. I should mention that much of what I don’t like about Brazilian food is the same thing I can say about American food: too much meat (especially beef), too many casserole-like dishes that are over-the-top creamy, and too much emphasis on simple starches and not enough on vegetables.
I’ll start again with fruit. I don’t really like cashew fruit. For those of you not familiar with this fruit, it’s a rather odd looking combination of a fruit with a cashew nut hanging from the bottom. The flavor of the fresh fruit is quite astringent, leaving a kind of coating in your mouth. Most people here seem to make juice from it and add sugar, which helps to ameliorate this astringency to some extent. It’s noteworthy that the cashew fruit/nut is in the Anacardiaceae family, along with poison ivy, sumac, and mangoes. Perhaps this is why I’m bit weirded-out by the fact that the shell surrounding the cashew nut, which is attached to the fruit, is full of something called urishiol. This is the same highly-irritating chemical in poison ivy, and like this infamous plant, if you try to remove the shell around a cashew nut with your bare hands, you will probably soon have a very nasty case of dermatitis. For some reason, even though you can get the same allergic reaction from mango skin, mangoes give me much less pause. (My issue with most mangoes is that they are too fibrous to enjoy; the soft and squishy ones are definitely the best in terms of flavor.)
Everywhere you go in Brazil, you see lots of bakeries, which are often confusingly called (from an American perspective), delicatessens. The fresh foods found in these stores are generically called salgadinhos, which are savory pastries filled with cheeses, meats, and palm hearts and then fried. Specific versions are coxinhas (dough filled with chicken and then molded into a chicken thigh), and pastéis and empadas (meat filled pies, similar to the Mexican empanada). Generally speaking, there are two types of these pastries: the first kind is made from dough that is similar to what is used in an apple pie crust and the second kind is more like a graham cracker crust—very crumbly. These crumbly savory pastries are a lot like eating a graham cracker crust fried in margarine—definitely not my thing, but many people like them here.
Again, most of my seafood experiences have been excellent, with two exceptions: shrimp and bacalhau. It is very common to include shrimp in pastries and quiches, but almost always they tend to be overcooked and rubbery. Bacalhau is a generic term for codfish, and when fresh, it is very good. Bacalhau can also refer to salted and cured codfish, which has a very strong fishy/salty flavor and is very chewy. I think it must be an acquired taste.
Now to the less than good experiences with coffee. Unfortunately, and this is my coffee snobbery coming on full force, while coffee is widely consumed, the coffee has been, in my experience, not particularly good. This is surprising considering that Brazil grows a lot of coffee that is widely appreciated, especially for what are known as “single origin espressos“. So what makes “good” coffee? It requires, at a minimum: 1) coffee beans that have been roasted in the past week; 2) a roast that does not go beyond what is called “full-city plus” because once you get into French roast territory you’re tasting more carbon and less aromatic flavor compounds from the beans; 3) coffee prepared from whole beans that are immediately ground before brewing; 4) a water temperature as close to 205-degrees F (96 C) for brewing; and 5) coffee that is consumed soon after brewing. Admittedly, most coffee in the US is not made nor consumed according to these criteria; you either have to make it yourself (including roasting your own beans) or find a coffee shop that will make coffee this way for you. You’ve probably seen some of these boutique coffee shops before: when you arrive, the wall lists a wide variety of coffee varieties (e.g., Costa Rica, Kenya, Brazil), roast levels are clearly indicated, and you can have your coffee made as espresso, vacuum brewed, and pour-over, among many other options. (An example of such coffee shops, which are some of the better ones I’ve encountered, are Kudu in Charleston, South Carolina; the Speckled Ax in Portland, Maine; and Angelinas in Bristol, Rhode Island). I’ve yet to encounter such a coffee shop in Brazil, including in Rio de Janeiro. (My experience is, admittedly very limited — please tell me if these kinds of coffee shops exist in Brazil.)
If you’ve ever tasted coffee that meets all five criteria—regardless of how it has been brewed—you’ll never go back to normal coffee again because of the incredible nuances of flavors that are present, which vary from fruity to chocolate to spicy. Expert coffee “cuppers” have even developed a tasting language similar to sommeliers. Because Brazil has such a strong tradition of growing many good coffees I expected that a gourmet coffee experience might exist here as well. It seems like a potential market is wide open here for some engaging Brazilian entrepreneurs.
Interestingly, a “cappuccino” in Brazil is normally made as a desert drink with sugar, chocolate, and cinnamon. It’s not the simple combination of espresso and steamed milk that one would normally get in Italy, for instance. Instead, you order a café com leite (coffee with milk). Espresso is pretty much as you would expect, but macchiatos don’t seem to exist. On a more positive note, there is none of the silly craziness found in many American coffee shops where a “coffee” drink is this 2000-calorie desert made of a dash of espresso and tons of sugar and fat in a massive cup.
I will end my post by saying that overall, I very much enjoy Brazilian food and drink and will definitely take some ideas and recipes back with me to the US. But, the one food that I miss the most is Mexican, which has become so much a part of American cuisine (in its Tex-Mex form). Yes, I think the first thing I will do when I return to the US is to get a burrito, but I’ll also then find some tapioca flour and make a nice beiju at home. Bom apetite!