Brazil is a polyglot nation,” stated Jessica Harris, director of New Orleans’ Institute for the Study of Culinary Cultures at Dillard University, at the CIA’s 2009 Worlds of Flavor Conference. “Adaptiveness and creativity are its hallmarks.”
The country’s melting pot was stirred by many cultures: indigenous Indians, Portuguese colonists, African slaves and waves of immigrants from Asia, Germany, Italy, Poland and the Middle East. Add to that Brazil’s huge size and varied geography, and you get a multifaceted cuisine that encompasses everything from lively street food to sophisticated molecular gastronomy.
Alex Atala, a celebrated Sao Paolo chef, covers the spectrum at his two restaurants, Dalva e Dito and D.O.M. “What sets Brazilian cooking apart is its abundance of flavors and sensations,” says Atala. “The Amazon provides a huge diversity of ingredients, including exotic fruits that range from floral to acidic.” Beef, seafood, beans, rice and okra also figure prominently.
At the Worlds of Flavor conference, Brazilian cook Edinho “Edson” Engel prepared Abara—a handheld prep of mashed fradinho beans mixed with dried shrimp, onion, ginger, scallions, cilantro and red palm oil (dende) steamed in a banana leaf. While this street food hasn’t yet made it into mainstream U.S. dining, meat-loving America has embraced Brazilian food at the all-you-can eat steakhouse concepts known as churrascarias. Churrasco, the Portuguese word for “barbecue,” is a cooking style that originated with the gauchos (cowboys) during cattle drives in southern Brazil. At Brasa Brazilian Restaurant and Wine Bar in Niagara Falls, “Brazilian Grill Master” Ricardo Zanona offers sizzling skewers of 12 grilled meats. “We season the meat with coarse sea salt and roast it over charcoal for authenticity,” he says. Also on the menu are sides of garlicky farofa (toasted manioc flour), black beans and rice.
“Our meat supplier gets all the cuts we need—they even make the traditional sausage for us,” notes Zanona. “We import the seasonings from Brazil.”
Brazilian flavors have also made inroads at Sandella’s, Flatbread Café, a 125-location fast-casual concept. “Our best-selling product is Brazilian Chicken Grilled Flatbread,” reports founder and CEO Mike Stimola. “It features our signature Brazilian sauce—a sweet, mustardy blend seasoned with tropical spices.” The proprietary product is made by a vendor partner and shipped dry to each store, where it is reconstituted to serve as a sauce, dressing and glaze.
Zanona believes North America is ready for more Brazilian culinary adventure. With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, the cuisine will be front and center, giving restaurants an opportunity to go beyond the familiar Brazilian steakhouse menu and experiment with the country’s more unusual ingredients and flavors. The drinking crowd is already there, slugging down Caipirinhas—Brazil’s signature cocktail based on cachaca, a sugar cane spirit.
Acai: An Amazon-grown berry with strong antioxidant benefits.
Churrasco: A variety of meats grilled over coals and served on long skewers.
Dende: Palm oil; the essential cooking oil of Brazil. It has a nutty taste and tints dishes with a yellow color.
Farofa: Manioc or cassava meal; toasted and used as a garnish or side dish.
Feijoada: Black bean and pork stew that evolved from African slave traditions; often called “the national dish of Brazil.” It’s served with farofa, cooked greens, chili-lime sauce and sliced oranges.
Guarana: Tropical fruit that is often made into a beverage.
Hearts of Palm: A vegetable and ingredient popular in Brazilian cuisine.
Malagueta: A hot red pepper used in Bahian cooking.
Manioc: Also known as cassava, this starchy root vegetable is often ground into meal and flour.
Moqueca: Seafood stew from the Bahia region made with tomatoes, hot peppers and often, coconut milk.
Prato feito: Literally translated as “made plates,” these are Brazil’s version of comforting blue plate specials.
Priproca: An aromatic plant native to the Amazon region; it’s thought to have medicinal properties.
Quindim: An egg-rich dessert custard.