Whenever I get asked what Brazilian food is like, I never really know how to answer. I’m very aware that, being both Brazilian and a chef, this lack of reply to a seemingly straightforward question does not reflect well on me. But it is not ignorance that stymies me, rather the difficulty of finding the words to summarise something that is essentially an entire culture into a single sentence.
I like to think Brazilian food is a little like its people – a product of the different cultures that have contributed to the history of the country and an abundance of robust and diverse raw materials coming together to create a rich culinary tapestry. In São Paulo, home to the largest Japanese community outside of Tokyo, you will encounter truly authentic sushi prepared with fresh local fish, such as sea bass and dorado. In Bahia, the most northeasterly region of the country and former slave trade port, you will find spicy seafood stews perfumed with dendê oil – a palm heart oil typically encountered in African cuisine; a beautiful gift from one of the darkest periods of our history. In our deep mid-west, your palate will be tantalised with dishes made from our indigenous and ever-versatile cassava root accompanied by piranha soup or pirarucu grilled in banana leaves – river monsters turned gourmet delicacy.
The rich history of cultural influences on regional cuisine is repeated across the country, from the Gaucho barbecues in the south to the healing superfood fruits and vegetables in the Amazon. But when I think of Rio, my hometown, with its beaches, tropical rainforests and gargantuan mountains, I find myself wandering dangerously close to stereotypes. Feijoada? Caipirinhas? All you can eat meat? As much as I love all of the above, in a city that has undergone so much change in recent years I am adamant that Carioca (meaning originally from Rio) food culture is so much more than that.
I set out on a mission to discover the contemporary food scene of Rio de Janeiro and the people driving the changes behind it. In the city of sun, samba, sea and sand, it is easy to fall for the tourist traps, but if you want to eat like a local, come with me and I’ll show you around town.