Introduction to Traditional Brazilian Food
Traditional Brazilian food is a mosaic of influences from many different cultures: Brazil’s native peoples (several tribes), European (Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Polish), African, Asian (mostly Japanese), and also Middle-Eastern (Lebanese and Syrian).
It also varies from one region to another, reflecting both the country’s diverse backgrounds and its vast territory.
Perhaps the most striking trait about Brazilian cuisine is that somehow a unified national culinary identity took shape, while still preserving distinct differences at the regional level, where the influences of each of these peoples was the greatest. It’s like a beautiful, colorful quilt!
Traditional Brazilian Food Articles by Denise Browning
Overview of Traditional Brazilian Food
Now, let’s continue on to an overview of authentic Brazilian food or cuisine.
First of all, it would be helpful to note typical ingredients that are heavily used on a daily basis in Brazilian cooking.
- Nuts — cashews, Brazil nuts, peanuts, and pine nuts (pinhão)
- Vegetables — cassava, yams, corn, okra; palmito (hearts of palm)
- Fruits, mostly tropical — cashew fruit, açai, guaraná, banana, custard apple, acerola, pitanga, coconut, guava, mango, pineapple, papaya, passion fruit, coffee, pequi, and so many others
- Meats — a large variety of seafood, poultry, pork, and beef
- Dairy — mostly cow’s milk and typical cheeses such as requeijão, coalho, Catupiry, and Minas
- Legumes — beans (black, pinto, soybeans, garbanzo)
- Grains — several types of rice, wheat, and cornmeal
- Grass — sugar cane
- Others — tapioca, palm oil (or dende)
Traditional Brazilian Food Dishes and Drinks
Second, let’s take a look at typical dishes and drinks– some quite iconic– created from the ingredients above. This overview also has links to almost every item’s RECIPE.
Traditional Brazilian Savory Foods
|Feijoada||Black bean and pork stew -- this is widely considered to be the national dish of Brazil.|
|Tapioca crepes||Crepes made from tapioca flour, water, and salt, with either savory or sweet fillings, inherited from Brazil's native tribes.|
|Beans and rice||A staple in most of the country.|
|Moqueca||A seafood and vegetable stew typical of Bahia State, which was greatly influenced by Africans.|
|Churrasco||Grilled meats-- with a spotlight on picanha.|
|Pao de queijo||Gluten-free cheese bread rolls made from tapioca flour.|
|Coxinha||Deep-fried chicken fritters very popular at snack bars, parties, and as a street food.|
|Farofa||Seasoned manioc (cassava) flour.|
|Cuscuz||Steamed cornmeal served with a variety of toppings, either savory or sweet.|
|Galinhada||Saffron rice with chicken and vegetables.|
|Requeijao||Brazilian cream cheese.|
|Quibe (Kibbeh)||Bulgur wheat fritters, from Arab cuisine that also can be made into a baked casserole with requeijao.|
|Pizza||A legacy of Italian immigrants, who adapted it to their new Brazilian setting. Thin crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven with little or no sauce, but with a wide range of toppings, either savory or sweet.|
|Yakisoba, among other noodles||Infuenced by Japanese immigrants.|
|Bacalhau Quatro Queijos||Baked cod in Cheese sauce.|
|Acarajé||Black-eye pea fritter filled dried shrimp and a spicy creamy paste called vatapá.|
|Frango a Passarinho||Garlic and parsley chicken wings.|
|Pamonha (chunky tamal)||Yellow corn cake wrapped in fresh corn husks and boiled (either savory with cheese and sausage, or sweet made sweetened with sugar).|
|Pastel de carne||Fried empanadas filled with ground beef.|
|Risoles||Breaded and deep-fried empanadas filled with chicken, heart of palm, or shrimp.|
|Salpicão||Mayo-based chicken salad with carrots, raisins, shredded chicken and ham.|
|Vatapa||A creamy stew made from coconut milk, palm oil, and ground peanuts, with bread as a thickener, and shrimp or other protein source.|
|Vinagrete||A Brazilian mild pico de gallo.|
|Aipim frito||Yuca or cassava fries.|
|Arroz com pequi||Rice with pequi fruit.|
|Arroz de coco||Coconut rice.|
|Arroz de forno||Baked rice casserole.|
|Baiao de dois||Rice, bean, and cheese stew.|
|Bauru||A type of ham and cheese sandwich.|
|Biscoito de polvilho||Tapioca breadsticks.|
|Bobó de Camarão||A shrimp dish similar to a chowder, served in a puree of cassava (manioc) meal and coconut milk.|
|Broa de milho||A type of Portuguese corn bread.|
|Cachorro quente||Brazilian hot dogs, served with many varied toppings.|
|Camarão no leite de coco||Shrimp in coconut sauce.|
|Canja de Galinha||Chicken soup with rice.|
|Carne de sol||Salt cured beef.|
|Couve a Mineira||Pan-fried collard greens.|
|Empadão||Large chicken pot pie.|
|Escondidinho||Chicken shepherd's pie with yuca.|
|Feijão tropeiro||Beans with manioc (cassava) flour.|
|Pato no tucupi||Duck stew in a yellow sauce made from wild manioc root (cassava).|
Traditional Brazilian Sweets
|Brigadeiro||An iconic chocolate fudge candy created in São Paulo, but beloved throughout the entire country.|
|Brigadeirão||A family-size brigadeiro or chocolate fudge flan.|
|Açai bowl||Açai smoothie topped with bananas and granola (although there is a savory version that is served with dried fish, shrimp, and manioc flour).|
|Bolo de rolo||A thin multi-layer cake roll filled with melted guava paste, or made with other flavors, such as chocolate.|
|Quindim||A bright yellow custard made from egg yolks, sugar, and coconut flakes, resembling a mini flan.|
|Bolo de tapioca||No bake tapioca cake with coconut.|
|Rabanada||Deep-fried french toast covered with cinnamon and sugar.|
|Pão de mel||"Honey cake" -- Similar to a gingerbread, but these are filled with dulce de leche and covered with chocolate.|
|Bolo de fubá||Cornmeal cake.|
|Bolo de milho||Sweet corn cake, either fluffy or creamy.|
|Bolo de banana||Cinnamon spiced banana cake.|
|Bolo de cenoura||Cake with carrots finely pureed into the batter, fluffy and topped with chocolate ganache.|
|Fruit compotes||Compotes made with bananas, guavas, limes, oranges, cashew fruit, etc.; influenced by Portuguese settlers.|
|Bolo de arroz||Sticky rice cake made from rice flour.|
|Rapadura||Whole cane sugar or jaggery.|
|Creme de abacate||Eggless avocado mousse blended with sweetened condensed milk.|
|Pudim de leite||Caramel flan cooked in a ring pan.|
|Creme de papaya com cassis||Papaya cream with blackcurrant liqueur.|
|Bolinho de chuva||Deep-fried doughnut holes covered in cinnamon sugar.|
|Bolo de coco||Mildly-sweet fluffy coconut cake.|
|Canjica de milho/ Munguzá Doce||Hominy cooked in a sweet coconut sauce.|
|Mousse de maracujá||Passion fruit mousse.|
|Paçoca||Ground peanut candy, similar to the filling in a Reese's Peanut Butter cup.|
|Pastel de nata||Sweet custard tarts from Portuguese influence.|
|Pavê||Chocolate or fruit trifle with cookies.|
|Pudim de pão||Bread pudding with a flan-like consistency.|
|Queijadinha||Flourless coconut and cheese mini custard tarts.|
|Romeu e Julieta||Combination of guava paste with a mild cheese.|
|Torta holandesa||Cookies and cream tart made with ice cream.|
|Fio de Ovos||Sweet egg threads from Portugal served as dessert, toppings for cakes, and also a side for ham and turkey.|
|Pamonha de forno||The sweet version is a baked sticky corn cake that emulates the traditional dish wrapped in fresh corn leaves and boiled in water.|
|Arroz doce||Rice pudding topped with cinnamon.|
|Cocada de Leite Condensado||Sweet, slightly chewy bars made with coconut flakes and condensed milk.|
|Sorvete Nata Goiaba||Rich vanilla ice cream suffused with fragrant guava sauce|
Traditional Brazilian Drinks
|Coffee||Made from arabica coffee beans and quite strong. For this reason, it is mostly served in mini cups, called cafezinho.|
|Caipirinha||Brazil's national cocktail made from cachaça and lime, with different fruit variations.|
|Chimarrão or Yerba mate||Mate tea served in a calabash gourd.|
|Fruit juices||Made fresh from various assorted fruits.|
|Guaraná soft drink||Carbonated beverage made from guaraná berry.|
|Beer (chopp)||Served super-chilled, influenced by German immigrants.|
|Cana de açucar||Sugar cane juice. Very much a street drink, usually served with pastel.|
|Limonada suíça||Brazilian fresh limeade.|
To read more about classic Brazilian ingredients and their American subs for recipes, see here.
Regional Brazilian Cuisines
Notably, traditional Brazilian dishes and the typical ingredients that they use vary from one region to the next. In fact, sometimes they even differ between states from the same region, due to regional influences.
Regional cuisines of Brazil can be classified by geographical areas as follows:
Seven states — Acre, Amazonas, Amapá, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, and Tocantins– where the largest influence is Indigeneous. The cuisine is known for its heavy use of manioc (cassava) and its derivatives. Its use of freshwater fish (due the Amazon river) and Amazonian fruits such as açai berry also stand out.
Nine states– Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Piauí, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte and Sergipe. This is the largest region, with African, Native, and Portuguese influences, although the predominance of each varies within each state.
Bahia, for example, shows more African influence than any other state. In addition, Dutch and Jewish influences shine through in the state of Pernambuco.
It’s a regional Brazilian cuisine heavy in seafood and coconut dishes, on account of its large coastline. The tropical climate also favored planting and use of cane sugar and whole cane sugar (rapadura). Plus, there are fruit compotes from the Portuguese, palm oil and black-eye peas from Africans, tapioca (manioc) flour from the Native tribes, and the Dutch Edam cheese (from which ‘queijo do reino’ is adapted), among others.
This region and the North region are also known for their gluten-free diet where vegetable roots, corn and tapioca-based dishes are common, along with rice and beans. This is in contrast to other regions that have more wheat-based dishes.
Three states — Goiás, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul and the capital of Brazil, Brasilia. The influences are mainly Portuguese and Native. The most well-known dishes are rice with pequi, galinhada (chicken and rice with pequi) and pamonha goiana (yellow corn tamales filled with cheese and sausage).
Four states — Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Espírito Santo and Minas Gerais. The largest cuisine influences here are Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, and some African and Native, depending on the state.
It’s a region known for pizza with outrageous toppings, pastas with requeijao and polenta with chicken. Other foods typical from this region are feijoada and its sides, brigadeiros, sushi with tropical fruits, fried cassava, fried empanadas, kibbeh, and seafood stews like moqueca capixaba.
Three states — Parana, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. This region has mainly European influence (Italian, German, Spanish, and Polish). Churrasco, chimarrao, wine, pirogi, and colonial breakfasts with German pastries are some of the most popular foods there.
Traditional Brazilian Food in Restaurants
Although you can find diverse ethnic food restaurants in most of the country, traditional Brazilian food and fusions are quite popular in Brazil. Depending on the setting, it can be ordered by:
- por quilo (the price of a plate of food depends on its weight in kilos), a type of service which is common in commercial areas near business offices, downtown, and in malls. This usually features a buffet style set-up and there is often a wide variety of regional dishes.
- a la carte in more refined restaurants and mall eateries.
- rodizio style (all-you-can-eat, fixed price), seen at steakhouses, pizzerias, and sushi places.
Brazilian Daily Meals & Staples
In general, Brazilians tend to have 5 to 6 meals a day such as:
Breakfast foods in Brazil vary by region. In the North, people tend to have a heavy breakfast, such as açai bowl with manioc flour, fried fish and shrimp.
In contrast, in the Northeast tapioca crepes with cheese, scrambled eggs with corn couscous, and boiled vegetable roots with melted butter are staples.
Colonial breakfasts with a wide variety of cakes and pastries are common in the South. This is especially true in Rio Grande do Sul where there is great German influence.
In the Southeast region, breakfasts tend to be lighter. This could be something like a cup of coffee, toast, and a piece of fruit. However, personal choices also apply, such as yogurt, cereal, fruit juices, eggs, and cheeses, etc.
This usually consists of leftovers from breakfast or something light, like a piece of fruit.
Certainly lunch is the heaviest meal of the day. Regional differences really stand out at lunchtime. But most of the country has rice and beans as a staple. The combo is served with an animal protein (mostly beef, chicken, or seafood) and cooked or fresh vegetables.
Those with less financial means or vegetarians replace meat with a piece of fruit, like pineapple or banana. To give more substance, some mix manioc flour or corn couscous with beans, and/or have a vegetable root (yuca or yam) as well.
Many who work in large cities either have lunch at buffets where the food price varies by weight (por quilo), or order lunch delivery to the office, such as “Chinese” food. By the way, there has been a wave of Chinese immigration to Northeast Brazil in recent years. Quite a few of these immigrants own buffets that feature regional Brazilian cuisine.
In contrast to lunch and breakfast, dinner is usually the lightest of the 3 main meals. Dinner often features soups, salads, grilled meat, healthy sandwiches, or leftovers from breakfast or lunch, in small amounts.
Not very common, but some will have something light, like fruit juice or yogurt.
To sum up, this has been an overview of popular Brazilian food. As shown above, traditional Brazilian food is an adventure for the senses, conquering all who have tried its rich, diverse dishes.