Research: Brazilian Cuisine

Thursday, January 19, 2017
When I say “Chinese food” or “Italian food” or “French food”, chances are that your brain is prepared, and has got some images primed and at the ready to spring to your mind. But what’s the first thing you think of when I say “Brazilian food”? That one’s a bit of a mystery. What a perfect opportunity to do some research!

Brazilian food is not one, big, monolithic idea, of course. It’s a huge country, so just as there’s a difference in the United States between “Southern food” and “Northeastern food”, Brazilian cuisine varies by region. It’s also similar to the USA in that the differences are influenced by geography and the immigrant groups who chose to settle in each area. As far as country-wide ideas go, Brazilians love their coffee, and their national cocktail is named caipirinha, made with alcohol derived from sugar cane. In the food realm, if there’s one dish that your brain can file away as wholly Brazilian, it’s the dish that any Brazilian restaurant worth its salt will be serving: Feijoada.

Feijoada is basically a mixture of black beans and salted/smoked meats cooked over a low fire. Vegetables are then added to be cooked by the steam of the beans and meats. It is traditionally served with a dark broth alongside white rice, oranges, and greens.

It's especially common in Southeast Brazil, thanks to the domination of big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo over the region. The rice and beans are also used in many other dishes, such as one that combines grilled beef filet, rice and beans, farofa (toasted casava flour), and French fries. Corn makes an appearance in the state dishes of Minas Gerais, while Espírito Santo is influenced by the German and Italian immigrants there. Also, seafood is obviously a big part of the Brazilian Southeast.

Northern Brazil has smaller population centers, so the indigenous cuisine is a lot more present. The most well-known dish of the region is pato no tucupi. Duck is cooked, then prepared in tucupi sauce, which consists of broth extracted from cassava and boiled guava. It’s then served with white rice, manioc flour, and corn tortillas.

The Northeast gets a lot of its flavor from Africa. A popular shrimp dish (bobó de camarão) is from this region, as are many other shrimp dishes, such as an intriguing one called vatapá. Vatapá is made from bread, shrimp, coconut milk, finely ground peanuts and palm oil, all of which is mashed into a creamy paste. It can be sold with acarajé, a ball of black-eyed peas that are deep-fried in palm oil. Pancakes made out of tapioca are commonly eaten as breakfast, with fillings made out of cheese or condensed milk.

Finally, in the South, red meat is king. The United States has BBQ (or grilled meat – there’s a difference!) while southern Brazil has churrasco. It involves a variety of meats which are cooked on barbecue grill, often with supports for spits and skewers. American eaters may be tangentially aware of churrasco, due to the popularity of Brazilian steakhouses.

That’s the gist of Brazilian food, but it’s impossible to summarize fully in a brief blog post. I haven’t even mentioned grilled chicken, pizza, corn bread with fennel, Brazilian cheeses, pasta, or a metric ton of other foods that are popular down there, but I hope that I've at least gotten you started. The best way to continue this research is to go eat some yourself, and I'm willing to guess that once you’re done, your brain won’t consider it such a mystery association anymore.