Since one of our favorite parts of traveling is experiencing the food, we thought it would be fun to dedicate an entire blog post to our culinary experience in each country we visit. We're certainly not foodies, but we do like to experience local flavors, regional dishes, and cheapie street food. And of course, beverages!
Our Brazil Food Experience
The Brazilian foot we had was hit-or-miss. Well, not so many misses... more like hit-or-meh. There were some truly tasty dishes, and we really enjoyed many of our meals. We loved the fresh seafood and abundance of tropical fruit everywhere! But what we didn't like is that Brazilian food is heavy on three things: 1. Cheese, 2. Bread, 3. Fried food. Salads and leafy greens just aren't popular here (from what we saw). So seeing a real salad on a dinner menu was a treat we jumped at. The menus overall were HUGE with tons of choices, like a diner. But the choices were somewhat repetitive, and half the time they didn't have the items on the menu that we ordered. But the finer-dining establishments we tried were more in the style we are used to, a normal selection of 5-10 appetizers, entrees, etc.
This varied wherever we went, but every hotel, every pousada, even low-end hostels offer breakfast. It's always includes sliced meats & cheeses, fresh tropical fruits, and breads. In Bahia, they jazz it up a bit with regional dishes like cheese stuffed tapioca fold-overs, fried plantains, cassava, and more. It is not a small meal, so you start out the day stuffed!
Forget sandwiches and salads. Brazilian “Lanchonettes” were everywhere, and featured heated cases of Pastels and Coxinhas, and cold cases of beer (see below for Pastel and Coxinha). Though bread is HUGE in Brazil, the concept of meat and cheese between slices of bread was just not their lunch thang.
Large and in-charge, dinners generally stuffed us to the brim. Wait times for dinner were quite tedious in restaurants, and a chef we befriended on the trip explained that the idea of “pre-prep” in Brazilian kitchens isn't a thing. So when you order french fries, they go to the kitchen and the chef start peeling the potato. Whether this is entirely true, I don't know, but this is what we were told!
National and regional dishes we tried
- Coxinhas and Bolinhas: These popular lunch items, and are also common street food or as appetizers for dinner. Basically it's a ball of dough, stuffed with cheese or a meat, then fried. Coxinhas are generally stuffed with poultry and are meant to resemble a chicken thigh, hence their conical shape.
Pastels: Stuffed pastry dough. These are everywhere, and often times were the only option available – stale from the airport heat lamp cases or fresh from the beach vendors, who came around selling their homemade pastels from baskets covered with cloth napkins.
Acarajé: Another Bahia regional specialty, but this one is street food... black-eyed pea fritters, stuffed with shrimp, a veggie salsa, and a fish sauce. This was the one dud of the list, just not our favorite.
Dulce de Leche Churros: These are everywhere on the street in Rio. It's a basic churro, but stuffed with a creamy and delicious fake caramel sauce, or chocolate. It's tasty crap, much like getting a pretzel on the street of NYC.
Farofa: This little side dish comes with everything! Farofa is toasted manioc flour., and looks like a little bowl of sand (yes, sand, like the beach). We were totally confused by it when it was first served to us. The good farofas are nutty and flavorful, and we enjoyed them! But the bad ones taste like nothing so it just feels like, well, you ate a spoonful of sand. It's a weird textural sensation at first, but we adapted as we realized that farofas, like bread served with a meal, can be really good or really boring filler food.
Pão de Queijo (Cheese bread): I learned about this from my best friend, and I'm so glad I did! These are little balls of puffy tapioca dough infused with a cheese flavor by way of mixing fresh cheese into the dough. They remind me of cheesy popovers and are truly delicious.
Moqueca: This is the regional specialty dish of Bahia. It's a seafood stew made with onions, peppers, tomatoes and a coconut milk broth, served over rice. We ate a lot of moqueca, and tried many varieties: fish, lobster, shrimp, crab. Our favorite was at this hole-in-the-wall place in Boipeba called Panel de Barro, it was the “chef's moqueca” and had a meaty white fish, okra, and plantains. Truly delicious!
Caipirinha: The classic Brazilian drinks, duh. Lime, sugar, and cachacha – a spirit like rum, but made from sugar cane. Chris drank approximately 52 of these in three weeks.
Caipiroska or Caipafruta The vodka version and the fruit version (passion fruit, mango, strawberry...)
Cervejas (beer). The four main brands we saw everywhere (in order of prevalence) were Itaipava, Skol, Brahma, Antarctica. Beer is dirt cheap in Brazil, usually cheaper than bottled water! And they serve it in 600ml bottles in the smartest invention every that hasn't made it to the states – your own personalized giant beer koozy! You drink from tiny little glasses so you constantly re-pour, but that means you're always drinking cold beer. Brilliant!
Sucos (juices). Oh how the fresh juices tasted! From mango to passion fruit to abacaxi (pineapple), the fresh squeezed juices all tasted like the nectar of the Gods.
Coco Gelado. From the bustling streets of Rio to the remote beaches of Bahia, you can buy a coconut with a hole, and a straw. And it's perfect!
NO QUESTION, the best restaurant we ate at is the Pousada Santa Clara in Boipeba. We ate there three times in four nights. The chef is an NYC-by-way-of-Vermont transplant, and each night served a menu of only three appetizers, three entrees, and three desserts. Diners can do a price fixe, or choose a la carte, but the three-course gourmet meal was only $22, so we usually just went with that, because, duh.
The chef's Brazilian-inspired menu was infused with an international flair. For example, one night he served an appetizer that was Korean-style calamari pancakes. Or cappellini pasta with caramelized lime and sun-dried tomato. Once Chris has the Polvo Greco, or Greek-style octopus. The restaurant sources almost all of their ingredients locally (so meat was scarce). And they have a garden where they grow lettuces, greens, herbs, and many vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants. Even a simple salad at this restaurant was a culinary treat! Oh and they make their own ice cream, too. We tried 7 flavors out of 10 and they were all awesome.
Best Individual Dish
This is a tie:
Duck Confit Coxinhas at Rayz in Rio de Janeiro. Duck confit in a fried ball of heaven.
Crab-stuffed Argentinian morel mushrooms at Rocka Beach Lounge in Buzios
Best Grocery Store Find
Brazilian “Oreos” – Chocolate cookies stuffed with coconut flavored filling!
Differences & Observations at Mealtime
Napkins. The napkin culture is entirely different! Even nice restaurants don't use cloth napkins. We had ONE real napkin in three weeks, at a French restaurant owned by Europeans. In every other restaurant, we got these teeny-tiny paper napkins that disintegrate after one tiny dab to your mouth. Try putting them in your lap and they blow away. And some places even have wax-covered napkins from a dispenser that are basically pointless because they absorb zero moisture.
Ketchup & Mustard. The Ketchup (or Catsup, as they label it) in Brazil has mostly been sub-par. Some was a magenta colored translucent sweet sauce, and some places that serve fries just didn't have any ketchup at all. The mustard generally resembled yellow gel-paint. Small details, we lived.
Toothpicks on the table. Everywhere.you.go.
Picante. At many restaurants, you are serve you a tiny dish of a spicy sauce called “Picante” or Pimente” depending on where you go. As the waiter places it down, he stresses (and really stresses) that it's HOT and to be careful. This is no joke. We tried it a few times and even the smallest amount made our eyes water and throats burn. A dime sized drop would make you cry. A whole a tablespoon would probably burn an immediate ulcer in your stomach lining.
“Dois Pessoas”. This means 2 persons. Many, many restaurants serve their dishes to serve two people. Making it paramount that you can agree with your dining partner!
Obviously there is much more to Brazilian food since it's a HUGE country with many regional specialties. We also didn't make it to Sao Paolo, the culinary capital of Brazil. But this was our snapshot from 3 weeks of dining in Brazil!