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An introduction to Brazil’s regional cuisine

An introduction to Brazil’s regional cuisine

by Great British Chefs Thursday, March 10, 2016

South American food is becoming more and more popular, and with the Olympics being held in Rio de Janeiro this year, there's a particular interest in Brazilian cuisine. Read our introduction to the regional cooking of this vast country and get to grips with some of the more unusual ingredients.

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Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Brazil is home to twenty-six states divided into five regions, which each have their own unique ingredients and signature style of cooking. It also has one of the most diverse populations in the world, which has produced an incredibly rich food culture that’s only now starting to be truly understood outside the country. There were thousands of tribes living in the country before the Portugese arrived in the 1500s, who combined their dishes with the indigenous produce around them. The slave trade then brought millions of Africans to Brazil, who further influenced the food culture, followed by large swathes of Germans and Italians in the nineteenth century. The country is now home to the second largest Japanese community outside Japan thanks to a large migration in the twentieth century. There’s even a well-established Syrian and Lebanese population.

All these different cultures have resulted in a very diverse Brazilian food culture, with huge differences between regions. There are a few mainstays across the board – manioc (also known as cassava or yucca), for example, is a common ingredient throughout the country – but there are five areas of Brazil (south, southeast, central/west, north and northeast) that can easily be distinguished from one another. While food in Brazil includes dishes such as feijoada and drinks like the caipirinha are quite well-known already, they are just a minuscule representation of the Brazilian recipes out there.

South

 
 

The southern tip of Brazil is all about churrasco, or barbecue, and is probably what most of us associate traditional Brazilian food with – plenty of cuts of meat, well charred over a flame. Marinades are usually simple – sometimes nothing more than rock salt is used – and a salsa on the side is all that’s needed (along with plenty of beer). A Brazilian barbecue tends to be a day-long event, usually on a Sunday, and are often hosted by gauchos, a name given to the people from the largest state in the area, Rio Grande do Sul.

Other regional dishes include barreado, a beef stew cooked in a clay pot sealed with a basic dough that best represents the native cuisine, and tainha, a local fish stuffed with prawns and olives then topped with potatoes.

Southeast

 

The southeast of Brazil is home to its most famous cities – Rio de Janiero and São Paulo – and the food there is heavily influenced by Portuguese cooking. Rio is home to the feijoada, a black bean and meat stew that’s listed as one of the country’s national dishes, and across the region pão de queijo (cheese-flavoured bread) is sold. Cuisine in the southeast is the most eclectic of all, as this was where the majority of Europeans chose to settle over the centuries. São Paulo is full of Italian restaurants, so pizza and pasta is quite prevalent, while Rio and Espírito Santo are both coastal states, so seafood plays an important part. Moqueca capixaba is a fish and seafood stew cooked with tomatoes, coriander and annatto served with pirão, a puree using the same ingredients.

Minas Gerais is one state that has its own unique food culture, thanks to the large farming community there. Vegetables such as couve (a type of cabbage) and abóbora d’água (winter melon) are served alongside chicken, and dairy products are eaten daily.

 
Pequi
Pequi are strange fruits with a slightly cheesy smell
South Brazil
Brazil's southern states are home to ranch-style farms

Central and west

Meat is much more important here than anywhere else, as this is where the majority of Brazil’s livestock is reared. Plantain and pacu, a local fish, are eaten daily, and empadão – large savoury pies – are filled with ingredients like corn, chicken and cheese.

Indigenous fruits are also very popular throughout Brazil’s Midwest – pequi is the most common, especially in Goiás, and is often said to taste slightly cheesy, hence its use in savoury dishes.

Northeast

 
 

The northeast of Brazil was where the majority of sugarcane plantations were based, so local food culture was heavily influenced by African slaves in the 1500s. Plenty of spices, palm oil, coconut milk and okra is used in most savoury dishes, which are often stews containing seafood or offal.

Moqueca from Bahia – a simple prawn and coconut milk stew, cooked in the same way as a bouillabaisse, is now served around the world in Brazilian restaurants. Acarajé are little dumplings made from black-eyed peas, prawns and spices which are then fried, similar to falafel.

Further inland in the state of Sertão, many dishes are flavoured with offal. This is one of the poorest areas of Brazil, so the local cuisine evolved around the parts of the animal which were the most affordable.

 
Amazon
The north of Brazil is home to the Amazon, as well as all its exotic fish and fruits
Cajú
Cajú are the fruits of cashew nut trees and is used to flavour ice cream

North

 
 
Acai berries
Açai berries come from the north but are now exported all over the world

This is the place where the majority of Brazil’s indigenous ingredients are eaten, as it is home to the Amazon forest and river. Thanks to its remote location, the cuisine was not heavily influenced by the Portuguese and other settlers, so the dishes eaten by the native population remained relatively unchanged.

There are thousands of edible fish found in the Amazon, which come in a wide range of flavours and sizes – pirarucu are huge fish that are often smoked or dried; surubim are giant catfish grilled over flames and tucunaré (or peacock bass), which taste a little like snapper.

Manioc was made into flour here long before it was adopted by the other regions of Brazil as a staple, before being turned into pirão, a thick jelly made of manioc flour (also known as farinha) and stock. Brazilian hot pepper sauces known as pimento also originate from here, ranging in flavour and heat.

The most famous ingredients from the north of Brazil, however, are fruits. Açai berries are used in all sorts of dishes thanks to their superfood status, but throughout Brazil they are usually served with sliced bananas on top of granola. Guaraná is another popular berry, thanks to its high caffeine content, and the cashew fruit cajú is often used to flavour Brazilian desserts, ice creams and cocktails.

 

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