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Brazil's Carnival of Flavors
Susheela Uhl
December 01, 2003 - Article
Brazil has the most varied cuisine in Latin America, due to its ethnically diverse population, and its proximity to other South American nations. Ten countries surround Brazil - Venezuela, Suriname, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, French Guiana and Guyana - and influence foods along these borders and in larger cities.

The country's indigenous Indians were traditionally hunters and fishermen. They lived on fresh and dried fish and shrimp, salted and dried roast meats, manioc ( mandioca in Portuguese, or cassava), beans, fruits, malagueta hot peppers (related to tabasco peppers), avocado, corn, squash, plantains and other roots. The first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in 1500, bringing with them cattle, poultry, sugar, salted cod ( bacalhau ), cheese, olives, the art of winemaking, and a taste for rich, sweet desserts made with eggs and sugar, in addition to many spices. Brazil remained a Portuguese colony until the late 1800s.

Africans arrived in Brazil, primarily the northeast Bahia region, as slaves. Interracial marriage is common in Brazil, and the majority of its population can claim at least some African heritage. Africans introduced palm oil ( dende oil), which gives a golden hue and a nutty flavor to dishes, and is now the country's basic cooking oil, as well as coconut milk, peanuts, yams and okra.

Other settlers from throughout Europe, the Middle East, Asia and North America arrived, all of who influenced the cuisine. Italians brought their signature pasta dishes, pizzas and risottos, while Germans gave Brazil sausages, cold meats and the craft of pickling. Arabs introduced their delectable sweets, seasoned minced meats, kebabs and couscous ( cuscuz ). And, the Japanese contributed a taste for raw fish, as well as mushrooms, a variety of vegetables, soy products and seaweed.

Rice ( arroz ), beans ( feijao ) and manioc are mainstays in Brazilian meals. Breads, pastas, potatoes, sausages, eggs, corn, cheeses and fruits are also commonplace. Fresh and dried fish ( peixe ) and shrimp are important food staples for the Amazon, Bahia and coastal regions, while the South consumes meats in abundance.

Food in Brazil is not highly spiced. Coconut, cilantro, parsley, dried shrimp and dende oil are typical seasonings. A more detailed understanding of Brazilian cuisine requires a study of foods eaten throughout the day.

Warming up

Brazilians start the day with a simple breakfast (café da manha) of coffee, black or with milk, and bread with jam, or corn bread. It sometimes includes ham and cheese, cake with butter and fresh fruits. Lunch (almoco) is often the big meal of the day and a leisurely affair. When eating out, people prefer a restaurant that serves home-style meals. Meats, poultry or seafood dishes with rice, beans, fries and salads are finished with coffee. Brazilians eat a late dinner (jantar), which can be light--consisting of bread, cheese, cold cuts and café au lait - or heavy. For in between meals and late afternoons, teas and coffees accompany pastries or sweet cakes made from coconut, nuts and/or fruits.

The main meal, whether eaten for lunch or as a heavy dinner, often starts with soup and/or appetizers. The soup may be a cold consommé for hotter seasons, and for winter months, a warm black-bean soup garnished with sliced eggs, farofa (made from farinha or toasted manioc flour with butter, onions and bacon bits) or croutons. Chicken soup, canja de galinha, is always popular. Other soups include creamy artichoke, carrot, sweet-potato, manioc, onion, lentil, seafood and mixed-vegetable, frequently seasoned with chives, parsley or mint.

Brazil has numerous styles and types of appetizers (couvert), savory snacks (salgados) and bite-sized savories (salgadinhos). Popular salgados include: empadaos (turnovers), pastels (fried, filled pastries), esfirra (spicy meat dumplings), quibe (seasoned minced-meat balls), fried manioc, acaraje (black-bean fritters) and pao de queijo (cheese buns).

Salgadinhos include empadinhas, little pies with cheese, shrimp, chicken or codfish; prunes stuffed with cheese and peanuts; churrasquinhos, grilled Brazilian-style meat, shrimp or chicken brochettes; flaky cheese pastries; and sandwiches made with cheese, ham, eggs, olives, tomatoes, peanuts and shrimp.

Other snacks include pastel de queijo (fried cheese pastry), stuffed eggs, ham and asparagus canapés, grilled linguica sausage, fried shrimp, bolinho de bacalhau (codfish croquette) and coxinha de galinha, a croquette stuffed with chicken and catupiri cheese, which has a texture similar to cream cheese.

Main meats

The main course for Brazilians typically includes an entrée of fish, meat or chicken, accompanied by rice or breads, beans, fried bananas, salads and vegetables.

Brazil is well-known for its seafood dishes, such as vatapa, a stew of dried shrimp, coconut milk, dende oil, peanuts and cashew nuts, onions, garlic, hot peppers and ginger; moqueca de peixe, a fish stew seasoned with tomatoes, coconut milk, dende oil, cilantro and onions; salmao a vila verde, grilled salmon in green-peppercorn and asparagus sauce; as well as stuffed crabs, mariscada (seafood stew) and fish in wine sauce.

Salted codfish, which is very popular, is prepared with butter sauce or made into codfish balls, stews, omelets and savory puddings. Preparations of shrimp include grilled with green sauce, topped with homemade cheese (camaroes com catupiri) or mandioca cream, shrimp alla Milanese, in an omelet or fritada (frittata), and in pies.

The plentiful meat and poultry is generally grilled, fried or stewed. Most popular are the churrascos (barbecues), made from beef, pork, chicken, lamb, sausages or xarque (salted, dried meat). Traditionally, the gaucho, or cowboy, placed meat on a spit end, barbecuing it slowly, and then basted it with a mixture of salt and water using a cornhusk or a leafy branch. When the meat was done, he would dip it into manioc flour before eating.

Today, churrasco is prepared in various ways, such as marinated in lemon juice, garlic and black pepper, and when done, is dipped into a sauce of onions, pepper and vinegar. Churrascarias are special restaurants that serve meat roasted over charcoal, dipped into sauce and accompanied with farofa, French bread, fried potatoes, fried ripe banana and/or green salads.

Other popular dishes include carne de sol (marinated dried beef), picadinho a Brasileira (Brazilian-style chopped beef), linguica a Mineira (grilled spicy sausage), pato no tucupi (duck in manioc-hot pepper sauce), pato assado com laranjas (roast duck with oranges), grango alho (grilled garlic chicken), cuscuz de galinha (couscous with chicken), croquetes de galinha (chicken croquettes), lombo a Paulista (pork loin from São Paulo) and leitao recheado (stuffed suckling pig).

Grains and greens

Rice, especially long-grain, accompanies the main entrées. Brazilian rice (arroz Brasileiro), seasoned with olive oil, salt, onions and/or garlic, frequently accompanies entrées or stews. Other popular ways of preparing rice are with coconut milk, tomato sauce or ham. Couscous is cooked with vegetables, chicken or other meats. French, onion, raisin, corn or cheese rolls supplement the meal. Pasta dishes are also popular, such as spaghetti with ham; alla Bolognese; with garlic and olive oil; or with clams; as well as rotini, gnocchi and lasagna.

Bean dishes can be entrées or accompaniments. Black beans are the essential ingredients in feijoada completa, the national dish of Brazil, which consists of beef and pork (fresh, smoked or cured), sausages and vegetables (kale, collards and pumpkin) seasoned with onions, hot peppers, cilantro and parsley, usually served with rice.

Brazilians stew white, navy and garbanzo beans with meats, sausages or tripe; bake them; make them into pies or casseroles; or add them to puddings. Brazil is the world's largest soybean-exporting country; the crop grows mainly in the south, destined primarily for export or for the tables of Chinese or Japanese residents.

Popular vegetables include carrots, pumpkin, squash, okra, cauliflower, potatoes, couve (a relative of spinach, similar to kale or collard greens), peas, plantains, collard greens and other greens. Chefs shred collard greens and cook them in butter for a side dish, or sprinkle them over feijoada. The tender shoots of palm trees - palm hearts or palmitos - are a Brazilian delicacy, appearing in soups, salads and cooked dishes, or garnishing pizzas.

Spicing it up

Farinha is like salt and pepper to Brazilians, who sprinkle it over every dish, be it soup, salad or entrée. Farofa is a must accompaniment on meal tables, prepared with toasted manioc meal, farinha de mandioca, generally cooked in butter or dende oil, and sometimes served in more-elaborate styles containing olives, bacon, prunes, carrots, sausage, cashew nuts or bananas.

Other seasonings include parsley, bay leaf, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, garlic, onions, thyme and mint leaves. Thick coconut milk, dried shrimp, manioc flour, dende oil and malagueta peppers are common flavorings.

Brazilians use sauces (molhos) for dipping or as condiments for entrées and churrascos. The local favorites are molho apimentado, a hot sauce with malagueta peppers, onions, tomatoes, green bell peppers, vinegar and olive oil; piri-piri, made with oil, vinegar and hot peppers; molho de pimenta com limao, a hot sauce with lime that tastes delicious with seafood, feijoada and stews; molho de acaraje, a chile-shrimp sauce poured over fritters or potatoes; farofa de malaguete, a chile-based condiment with manioc flour served over entrées; and a simple molho malagueta made with vinegar, olive oil and hot peppers.

European-style savory sauces incorporate eggs, flour, butter and lemon juice. Examples include anchovy, herring, caper, yellow (with curry powder and fish broth), apple and lemon sauces.

A sweet tooth

Brazilians' sweet tooth results in a variety of pastries and cakes. These include Brazil-nut, coconut, orange, manioc or pumpkin cake; almond cake with prunes; manioc coconut-milk pudding; quindin (sweet coconut flan); coconut and pineapple squares; coconut bars; butter cookies; and macaroons. Brazilians go to snack bars (lanchonetes), pastry cafes (pastelarias) and juice bars (barzinhos) to satisfy their sweet cravings.

Sweet, rich custards or flan are popular as desserts (sobremesas). They are made from flour, eggs and orange juice or coconut milk, and are flavored with nuts, caramel, coffee, cheese, prunes, lemon or other fruits. Pudding is also a favorite, and available in many flavors - corn, coconut, bread, milk, fruit and manioc. Other popular desserts are docinhos (homemade bonbons); guava or other fruit paste with catupiri cheese; chilled avocado cream and pumpkin; lime pies; fried bananas; and orange slices. Sweet sauces made with fruits such as prune, pineapple, mango, guava and passion fruit deck desserts, ice creams and puddings.

Candies with different colors and shapes, such as coconut candies (cocadas) and pumpkin candies, are common treats at festas and as munchies on street corners. Some have amusing names: urchin's foot (peanut brittle), two loves (sweet shredded coconut), little kisses (cherry rolls), she and I (made with cocoa and condensed milk and rolled in chocolate), and mother-in-law's eyes (stuffed prunes).

Natural bounty

Brazil is also famous for its natural delights - from fruits to nuts to botanicals. Fruits, eaten fresh or made into a variety of juices, are abundant in the country, and include carambola, orange, guava, strawberry, watermelon, mango, plum, sugar apple, cashew fruit, peach and pineapple. Others have more-exotic names, such as acai, a deep-purple fruit with a berry-like flavor; acerola, with a taste similar to cherries; the pear-like caja; the cool, refreshing cupuacu; guarana berry, high in caffeine; and the sweet and juicy biriba.

Brazil, or para nut, which grows in the Amazon forest, stars extensively in snacks and sweets. It was a staple in the diet of the early indigenous populations, who ate it raw or made it into a gruel with manioc flour. A Brazil-nut fruit is the size of a grapefruit, and its pod holds about 12 to 25 nuts, each with its own shell. It is 70% fat, mainly palmitic, oleic and stearic fatty acids, and 17% protein, mostly sulfur-containing amino acids, such as cysteine and methionine. It has the highest levels of naturally occurring selenium, which has antioxidant and anticancer properties, especially against prostate cancer. Its light, sweet flavor also makes it popular as a cooking and dressing oil.

Brazilians enjoy chilled sweetened fruit juices (sucos), soft drinks (refrigerantes) and beer. Sugar-cane juice, caldo de cana, is taken with savory nibblers. Coconut water is a favorite drink with which to cool off on the beach, while refreshing and sweet guarana soda is popular all over. When milk is added to blended fresh fruits instead of water, sucos then become vitaminas.

Many distilled liquors are made from sugar cane, and serve as alcohol bases for cocktails and fruit drinks. Batidas are mixes of cachaça, fruit juices and sugar. Cachaça (sugar-cane liquor, also known as aguardente de cana, pinga and other names), the national spirit of Brazil, has an alcoholic strength of 38% to 54% by volume. Hundreds of cachaças are on the market and can be found in cachaçarias, bars that only serve or specialize in cachaça. Caipirinha, considered Brazil's national drink, consists of cachaça, fresh lime juice and sugar over ice.

Brazil is the biggest producer of coffee (arabica and robusta) in the world. Its coffee is medium-bodied, clear, sweet and low-acid. Brazilians take coffee in many ways - black, with hot milk (cafe com leite), cream or vanilla ice cream, sweet or iced. Coffee Brazilian-style, cafezinho, is strong and black, sweetened with sugar, and served in a demitasse.

Tea (cha) varieties include guarana and cha mate, a stimulating drink taken to reduce fatigue and hunger. It is prepared from dried, roasted or fermented yerba-maté leaves and sweetened with sugar or flavored with lime juice. Brazilians sometimes drink it through straws from gourds. The caffeine content of yerba maté typically falls between 0.7% and 2.0%, with the average leaf containing about 1.0%.

Regional influences

Foods in the larger cities are very cosmopolitan and have international menus. For example, Rio de Janeiro abounds with pastas, pizzas, cheeseburgers and sandwiches, while São Paulo has numerous Japanese, Italian and Chinese dishes. However, Brazil has its own distinct native foods and flavors. Its cuisine falls into four main regional types: comida do sertao of the North, including coastal Belem, and interior Amazonas and Para; comida baiana (from the Northeast to the Bahia region); comida mineira from the Central West and Southeastern regions south of Bahia; and comida gaucha from the South, which includes Parana, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.

Comida sertao has indigenous-Indian origins. Game meats, fish, shellfish, manioc and fruits abound in such dishes as pato no tucupi (duck in manioc juice), acai sauce (crushed mixture of acai fruit with sugar and manioc flour), toasted manioc flour, coconut milk and grated coconut cooked together and wrapped in a banana leaf, and tacaca (a dish made from dried shrimp, hot peppers, manioc, fruits and other spicing). Dende oil, coconut milk and shrimp paste flavor stewed- or grilled-fish dishes.

Farther inland, preserved and grilled game meats; a variety of local fish - from piraruca (type of codfish) to tucunare to tambaqui to jaraqui - boiled or roasted with onions and tomatoes; and ground and baked mucua (turtle) are favorites with indigenous Indians. A baked, seasoned pie made with fresh and dried shrimp, potatoes and eggs is a specialty. Tucupi leaves, similar in flavor to spinach and chicory, serve as a side dish or added to sauces for game meats and seafood.

The Northeast's cuisine is based on fresh fish and shellfish flavored with hot peppers, dende oil, cilantro and coconut milk. Dishes include stewed or grilled fish, such as the catfish dourada and tilhote, shrimp, mussel pies, stuffed crab and corn dishes with vegetables, nuts and fruits, such as mangoes, guavas, passion fruit, sapotis, acerola or acai. Popular dishes are camarao com chuchu, shrimp with chayote; peixe a Brasileiro, fish stew served with pirao, a manioc-meal porridge; manicoba, manioc stew with jerked beef, pork, bacon, sausages and calf's hooves; and tigelinhas de milho verde, corn and green-coconut pudding.

Comida baiana has strong African influences and some of Brazil's most-flavorful dishes. Foods are fried in dende oil and flavored with ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cilantro, shrimp paste, coconut milk and malagueta peppers. Popular dishes include moquecas, African- and Indian-inspired stews of fish, shrimp or other shellfish, or a combination of fish and shellfish, and sometimes, chicken, flavored with dende oil, coconut milk, onions and malagueta peppers, cooked in a covered claypot; farofa with fried fish; caruru, a spicy fish dish with okra, malagueta peppers, onions and dried shrimp; and a chicken, fish or shrimp stew called xinxim with garlic, lemon and dried shrimp.

Comida mineria is from the states of Minas Gerais, Goias and Mato Grosso, as well as parts of Rio de Janeiro state bordering Minas Gerais. These inland areas are home to large cattle ranches and coffee and sugarcane plantations. The climate is cooler and food is hearty, with stews, soups and couscous dishes plentiful. Pork, vegetables, tutu (a sauce of refried beans with manioc sauce) and pasta are also prominent. The most popular dish is tutu a Mineira (pork chop with refried beans and couve, cooked in butter and garlic).

More Indians live in the region's interior, which has a simpler form of cooking. Lunch may be a sandwich with local cheese or sausage, farofa and cornmeal cake. Dinner may include rice and black beans, stewed okra, sliced fried beef, carne de seca (dried salted beef), chicken stew with potatoes and onions, and fried eggs. For dessert is pudim de caramelo, a rich, caramelized custard, or guava paste with fresh catupiri cheese, accompanied by coffee sweetened with rapadura, dark- brown sugar.

Comida gaucha in the South includes the prairies of Rio Grande do Sul to Parana, Santa Catarina and São Paulo. Its cuisine includes breads, potatoes and all types of grilled and barbecued meats cooked over charcoal. This is also the land of churrascos, and home to vast cattle ranches and plantations growing rice, wheat, beans and other grains. Comida gaucha has European influences, so it is somewhat bland in flavor. Specialties include rodizios (grilled or barbecued beef and sausages), barreados (meats and spices slowly cooked in a clay pot), rice, breads, pizzas, salads, potatoes, farofa, feijoadas and chimarrao (tea made from yerba maté). German culture has heavily influenced the Santa Catarina region, where cold meats, sausages, cheeses, pickles and pumpernickel breads are abundant.

Stateside status

Many Brazilians migrated to the United States during the 1980s, settling mainly in Newark, NJ, New York, the Greater Boston area, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami, where large Portuguese communities were already located. Through the years, many Brazilian restaurants, stores, delis and bakeries have opened up throughout the country.

For example, Pantanal Bar and Grill, Port Chester, NY, opened 10 years ago to serve the local Brazilian community. Since then, its popularity has spread among American as well as Brazilian customers, due in large part to its rodizios. Owner Richard Cuddy describes these as "a large variety of skewered, grilled, charcoal-broiled meats, served continuously. It includes homemade sausages, pacarnha (sirloin steak), pork loin, skirt steak, beef wrapped with bacon, and chicken. These are served with rice, beans, fried bananas and French fries. Some of the meats are marinated, such as pork loin and chicken, while steaks are generally dry seasoned." A big salad bar offers American-style and Brazilian salads, such as shredded lettuce with tomatoes, shredded squash topped with bacon and garlic, and hearts of palm and shredded collard greens.

Given the increasing popularity of Brazilian foods, Cuddy has expanded into ready-to-eat and processed foods as well. He manufactures fresh and frozen Brazilian pizzas, appetizers and cakes for wholesale, which includes restaurants, Brazilian food markets and retail home delivery. His popular thin-crust Brazilian pizza is topped with freshly puréed tomato sauce, imported catupiri cheese, mozzarella, ham, onions and/or pimentao (pimento).

From Brazil to your backyard

Developers can easily adapt Brazilian cuisine to North American tastes, as the food is mildly seasoned. The different regional dishes can appeal to different U.S. market segments. Bay leaf, parsley, thyme and black pepper, which mainstream Americans commonly use, are predominant flavorings in Brazilian cooking. Other favorites, such as barbecued meats, fish stews, fried chicken, grilled shrimp and sweet pastries are already popular on our meal tables, whether for mainstream or niche segments.

The flavors of coconut milk, fried sweet banana (or plantain), feijoadas and manioc are becoming familiar to mainstream Americans because of popular Thai curries and Hispanic side dishes. Meat and fish consumers will enjoy Brazilian grilled meat and seafood dishes. Americans who frequent steakhouses will enjoy churrascarias, which offer "all-you-can-eat" skewered meats with accompaniments, and can provide an exotic alternative to steak. The spicier Bahian flavors will appeal to local Brazilians and other Latinos, as well as to adventurous North Americans.

Flavors that will require more effort to introduce are the strong shrimp paste, pungent dende oil and the toasted farofas. However, shrimp paste and dende oil are already familiar to Southeast Asians who use them in their daily cooking. Farofas can be assimilated for the Hispanic market. Brazilian sweet desserts and cakes will appeal to the sweet toothed mainstream consumer, while Hispanics and Asians will enjoy the more-exotic coconut and tropical-fruit-based sweets. Brazil's numerous fruits have great potential in the beverage and sauce categories, as Americans are constantly searching for new and exotic flavors.

With a country as diverse as Brazil and a cuisine to match, inspiration abounds. From café da manha to jantar, couvert to sobremesa, flying down to Rio can be as simple as picking up a fork.

Susheela Raghavan Uhl is president of Horizons Consulting Inc, a New Rochelle, NY-based food and beverage consulting firm specializing in culinary concepts and product development, with a focus on ethnic and "new" American flavor and seasoning profiles, and nutritional analysis. Her expertise is in translating flavor profiles across regional and global markets. She provides presentations and workshops on culinary and market trends, ethnic foods and flavors, spices, and spice blends. Susheela can be reached via e-mail at or by visiting

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