Know your acarajé from your açaí with help from our expert travel guide to sunny Brazil. Our writer picks out 10 must-try dishes...
Brazil really does have it all. Larger cities like São Paulo and Rio boast unique culture, personality and nightlife, while the thousands of miles of coastline, epic countryside and hearty cuisine will have you in raptures. We've picked 10 essential Brazilian dishes to try on your visit.
Brazil and Argentina both claim to be South America’s barbecue champion. And while each have a different approach – from the cuts to the accompaniments – some things remain the same; the ogre-sized quantities of meat, best appreciated at a leisurely pace, and with an elasticated waistband.
In Brazil, premium cuts (the most popular being picanha, rump cap) are seasoned with no more than a liberal shake of coarse salt, before being grilled to pink perfection over charcoal (or wood, if you’re doing it the old-fashioned Southern way). Home barbecues will see sausages, queijo coalho (squeaky cheese-on-a-stick) and chicken hearts sharing space on the grill, while in churrascarías (barbecue-style steakhouses) all manner of meats on skewers, from pork to lamb and wild boar, will be sliced by waiters straight onto your plate.
More than a mere fish stew, moqueca is served with theatrical flourish as the piping hot clay pot is uncovered at the table amidst clouds of fragrant steam. Baianos (residents of Bahia, in the North-East) and Capixabas (from the neighbouring state of Espírito Santo) both lay claim to the origins of the dish, and both serve up equally tasty variations. At its simplest, fish and/or seafood are stewed in diced tomatoes, onions and coriander. The Capixabas add a natural red food colouring urucum (annatto seeds), while the Baianos serve a heavier version, with dendê (palm oil), peppers and coconut milk. It’s teamed with rice, farofa (fried manioc flour – ideal for mopping up juices) and pirão (a spicy, manioc flour fish porridge, that’s far tastier than it sounds).
Try making your own... Bahia-style Moqueca prawn stew
Dating back to the 1500s, cachaça is made from fermented sugarcane juice, and is best known as the fiery kick in caipirinhas – Brazil’s national cocktail. While caipirinhas are often made with uncoloured, unaged cachaças, there are thousands of better-quality golden varieties, aged in wood barrels, and sipped straight up by aficionados.
For the morning after, clear your head with a Guaraná (a sweet, fizzy energy drink), an água de coco (coconut water, best sipped straight from the coconut) or caldo de cana (freshly pressed sugar cane juice).
Try making your own... Caipirinhas with pineapple
Brazil’s answer to the chocolate truffle, brigadeiros are so simple to make that they quite literally get rolled out for kids’ parties nationwide. The sweet balls are made by simmering condensed milk with cocoa powder, then whisking in butter and shaping the mix into balls before rolling in chocolate sprinkles. Guaranteed to give an instant sugar high, they’re cloyingly sweet for some palates. Brazilians won’t hear a word against them though.
Try making your own... Brigadieros
Cheese and bread, two staple favourites the world over, are brought together in glorious union in Brazil’s pão de queijo (cheese bread). This moreish snack is enjoyed as much at breakfast as it is at any time of the day or night. Crispy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, the gluten-free breads are made with tapioca flour, eggs and grated queijo Minas (a cow’s milk cheese from the state of Minas Gerais), rolled into small balls. For a naughty twist, you sometimes find pão de queijo in fist-sized rolls – or even the size of a cake – stuffed with anything from yet more cheese or cream cheese to various meaty fillings.
Try making your own... Pão de queijo
One of the most calorie-laden street snacks I’ve ever had the good fortune to try, acarajé is a deep-fried patty of crushed black-eyed peas, palm oil and pureed onions, deep fried in yet more palm oil and then sliced open and stuffed with dried shrimp and vatapá – a rich and spicy puree of prawns, bread, cashew nuts and other ingredients. Originating in Bahia, in Brazil’s North-East, where the flavours have strong roots in African cooking, acarajé is at its best when made on the spot, served piping hot from the vat of oil, with a liberal dash of chilli sauce.
Try making your own... Acaraje-black eyed pea fritters with shrimp filling
Another favourite from Bahia, quindim is a glossy yellow sweet made with nothing more than eggs, sugar and coconut (with butter a common addition). Baked in cupcake-sized moulds, the bottom is toasted and golden, dense with grated coconut, while the top is a smooth, firm custard that sticks pleasingly to the roof of the mouth. A classic example of Brazil’s miscegenation, quindim is said to derive from the word kintiti meaning ‘delicacy’ in kikongo language (spoken in the Congo and Angola), while the recipe itself was inspired by the Portuguese love affair with egg yolks in sweets and pastries.
Try making your own... Coconut quindim
Of all the thousands of fruits from the Amazon, açaí is the best known, thanks to its super-food status. Traditionally eaten by indigenous tribes for energy, the hard purple berry is also used in Amazonian cooking, as a sauce with fish. A clever marketing campaign in the ’80s thrust it into the spotlight as the energy snack of choice for surfers in glamorous Rio de Janeiro. Served as a sweet, gloopy, frozen sorbet, sometimes topped with granola and slices of banana, or whizzed up in juices, it can found in every café, bakery, juice bar and supermarket across the country. You can even buy açaí vodka, and açaí beer.
Try making your own... Açaí smoothie
One of the few dishes eaten the length and breadth of Brazil, feijoada is a hearty stew of black beans, sausages and cuts of pork of varying quality – traditionally veering towards the lower end, with trotters, and ears all going into the mix. A labour of love, feijoada done the old fashioned way takes up to 24 hours to make, between soaking beans and desalting pork. Which is why most Brazilians go out to restaurants and bars to eat it – and only ever on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Rice, kale, orange slices, farofa (toasted manioc flour) and pork scratchings are served on the side, with a tipple of cachaça to ease digestion.
Try making your own... Feijoada
Beer, served so cold that chunks of ice stick to the bottle, is the drink of choice in Brazil. And an assortment of fried foods makes the perfect pairing, be it pastéis – deep-fried parcels of crisp pastry filled with melting cheese, or minced beef, or creamy palm heart –, or crunchy batons of manioc, bolinhos (‘little balls’) most often made with salt cod. Or perhaps coxinha (‘little thigh’), with shredded chicken and potato pureed, shaped like a (very voluptuous) thigh and covered in golden breadcrumbs.
Try making your own... Pastel de palmito
Catherine Balston is a food & travel writer based in São Paulo.
Are you a fan of Brazilian cuisine? Do you agree with our selection or have we missed your favourite? Share your must-try dishes below…