Food in Brazil – well, in Belo Horizonte and Rio – is carby, protein, sweet and salty, and it’s all washed down with beer or the many types of local sugar-spirit called Cachaça. Brasilia? Yes, we went there. We ate at a chain restaurant. The town is built for politicians, it is a food desert.
I am diabetic, my wife’s a pescatarian who currently has to avoid fibrous food. Yes, we sound exactly like ‘those sort of annoying, faddist wankers’ but even we found lots to enjoy in Brazil. Like Jack Sprat and Dr Sprat, we basically shared the menus, with me taking all the meat, most of the wonderful garlicky cabbage (see pic), and my wife taking the many forms of rice, potato, pastries and many, many, many sweet things.
Brazilians love their sweet things. Well, they love their salty things too. I sampled this sort of mix when I lived in Darwin in Northern Australia where the humidity and constantly sucked the salt from your bones (yes, I know, no salt in bones, but the image works so go with it). This means that Bacalhau (salt cod) is everywhere and varies in quality. We treated it as a quality test in the same way as we use risotto in Italian restaurants. If you fuck up risotto, you’re going to fuck up osso bucco. If your Bacalhau balls are dry or (as was the case in a square in Cinelandia in Rio opposite the municipal theatre) square and reconstituted, then your Feijoada (the beautiful, thick, meat off cuts and black bean stew of Brazil) is going to be a disaster.
So, what do you need to know to eat well in Brazil?
have hailed as “one of the best places to eat in Brazil”. This is a restaurant called Zuka in Leblon.
I’ve never visited a place that boasted a tasting menu that appeared genuinely, honestly surprised when it was asked to serve that tasting menu.
The dour waiter – showing a hint of emotion in the form of panic – went to the dour maître de who went to the dour sous chef who disappeared to speak to the ferociously dour chef patron – Ludmilla Soeiro, all in black, glaring – before returning to ask if I really meant to order the tasting menu.
I did, god help me. I did.
As it went that menu was heavy on tiny, forgettable meat and fish all cooked in a dull, one-note fashion with no drinks suggested let alone offered. This is supposedly a high-end joint remember. My wife and our friend at from the a la carte (both are pescetarian) couldn’t remember the flavour of what they’d eaten as soon as we jumped into the maddest cab ride I’ve ever had back to the hotel. Dull “modern international” food, served by humourless staff in an atmosphere reminiscent of a Trust House Forté service station in 1989. Thank the lord this was not indicative of the rest of the Brazilian experience.
Time to move on. Sorry Zuka.
What you need to know about eating in Brazil
- It’s inexpensive. Well, it is if you avoid places like Zuka and the all-you-can-meat chain Fogo de Chão, which we were forced into while staying in Brasilia.
- Service at 10% is almost always included. However, because the waiting staff are normally not high pressure and after early surliness incredibly friendly if you make a stab at Portuguese, we tipped additionally.
- Some places charge by the kilogram or part kilogram. Yes, this is an excellent plan especially if you’re a tourist and don’t understand the menus. You walk in, take a card from the (usually) young lass at the door, you go to the buffet, take a plate and choose your food. You then take the plate and card to the counter where the plate is weighed and your card marked. Repeat this until stuffed. Then take your card to the check out and marvel at the $R20 (£4) cost.
- There is a large Japanese community in Brazil following an migration agreement signed in 1907 between the Brazilian and Japanese governments to allow workers to come and toil in the coffee industry. This means that the sushi and sashimi joints (many of which use the weigh-a-plate system) are largely very good.
- If you like sweets things, you will love Brazil.
- If you like double carbs on a plate, you will love Brazil.
- Try to speak some Portuguese to your servers. This will make them happy, they will then treat you to things. Well, we discovered this to be true.
- Take your time.
- Ask if you don’t know what it is. This worked for me when some Farofa (a toasted cassava/manioc flour mixture) was plonked in front of me by Franceso the English speaking Vasco fan waiter who served me at seaside café, Rondinella, on Copacabana. He explained at length about how you could mix it with olive oil to make a paste or I could sprinkle it on the steak in front of me – its smokey, garlicy crunch working nicely with the warm, slightly crisp, slightly gelatinous fat rind of the properly rare cut.
- Try the hot sauce but we wary. I love hot sauces and Brazil is heaven for them. Even cafes such as the tiny Bar Jobi (established 1956) on the Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva, 1166, Loja B – Leblon, make their own infusions of oil and chillies with sugar; fresh, zingy, hot in layers, delicious. And Bar Jobi is basically just a local café with beer, coffee and salgado (pies, bacalao balls, snacks basically) that we should have more of in the UK. It is a bar with a surly, huge waiter who brightens and helps if you make a stab at speaking to him, not at him. It is not a tourist bar. Bless it.
- Brazil has a large Italian community. This began with Italian immigration in the 1870s following Brazil’s banning in 1850 of the slave trade. Italian food infuses Brazilian food. It is good. Do not fear it.
- The Museu Mineiro on the Avenida João Pinheiro is the best museum cafe in the world. Food from a buffet, served by the weigh-the-plate system. Unlike UK museum cafes and restaurants which are usually staffed by Joshy and Soph on their gap yahs with their could not give a shit attitude to service, knowledge of civility, with over-priced, undercooked food, the cafe at The Museu Mineiro on the Avenida João Pinheiro is full of love, beautiful food, surly service that brightens when you make the effort, deep, meaningful coffee and local people who come here with their families by choice to eat.
There for now, I’ll let you get on with some pictures and that one video as I have to go an make dinner.
First – a quick blast of local music from a bar on the outskirts of the Lapa area of Rio. We were taken here by the kind people at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, known as Fiocruz) where the conference on Tropical Diseases in Latin America and the Caribbean: a historical perspective where my wife was giving a paper had been hosted.