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The original thinking behind this article was to celebrate highlights of Brazil’s extraordinary food. What I realised instantly, as I began to remember mouth-watering moments from my culinary odyssey in Rio de Janeiro, was a top ten barely even covered the best of Carioca cuisine. It’s the fifth largest country in the world so it’s no surprise that Brazil has a large number of very distinct regional cookery styles and local dishes. If there is one factor which unifies Rio food it is, paradoxically, its diversity. Nevertheless, here is what I would count as some of the best food in Rio de Janeiro.
The first revelation was the classic breakfast dish pao de queijo. An intensely savoury cheese bun, it is dangerously moreish, and probably not great for the Brazilian bikini body, especially when covered with more cheese or even jam.
On the shimmering sidewalks of the Copacabana after a hot morning on the beach, Rio serves up ice cold beer, a startlingly frosty and refreshing beverage, often flaunted in deep freezers. Nursing this sub-zero thirst quencher and people-watching is one of the city’s simple pleasures. Nothing goes better with the beer than fried cassava chips. An absolute national staple and basically Brazil’s version of the potato chip, they have a nuttier, starchier appeal all of their own.
Rio has a rowdy drinking culture, and naturally tapas is the norm. Pastéis are perhaps the most irresistible bar snack, and that goes some way towards explaining why they can be found in so many Rio restaurants and bars. The pastries can be stuffed with virtually anything delicious, and the variety of fillings on offer is dazzling. Any variation on cheese, chicken or ground beef is especially delectable.
A strangely pleasing oddity of Rio food is its hearty nature. Intuitively better suited to a far colder climate, somehow it works. Feijoada, a thick black bean soup, is Brazil’s beloved national dish. Once viewed as a dish to fill up stomachs on a tight budget, it is a warm and satisfying pottage with chunks of meat, typically served on white rice. Kind of like chili con carne but with a distinctly Brazilian vibe. There are some great places to eat it near the Escadaria Selarón, and then of course you can admire Rio’s famous landmark, a steep, vividly decorated staircase in the bohemian district, after your meal.
Celebrating its rich seafood heritage, caldeirada fish stew is another classic one pot dish with roots in Portugal. Its genius is its simplicity: with a stock base of onions, garlic and peppers, virtually any kind of fish that is added to it only serves to enhance its flavour and texture. Squid, prawns, mussels and clams normally put in a welcome appearance.
Not all Rio food is about indulgence. In this health-conscious beach town of beautiful people, acai berry might be a globally renowned superfood ingredient outside Brazil, but it’s a much-loved breakfast and energy boost staple inside the country. Best enjoyed without too much added syrup, with natural sweeteners like bananas or mangoes.
Giving a shout out to beer and now the legendary cocktail caipirinha might be a bit of a cheat on a top ten foodie list but they are both essential accompaniments to many Rio dining experiences. The basic caipirinha mix of sugar, lime and cachaça as the alcohol component, but drinking it in Brazil is like drinking it nowhere else. The tang of the citrus and shaved ice offset the hit of the liquor. Perfect at sunset, maybe after a trip to Sugarloaf Mountain cable car.
Experiencing churrasco, or Brazilian barbeque, in its home country for the first time is an experience not to be missed. Perfectly chargrilled smoky, succulent meaty morsels are served with warm bread, fresh salads and hot sauce. It’s no surprise that this is Brazil’s most popular culinary export.
A pleasant Rio surprise is the quality of its sushi, and the quirks that have transformed this global staple into a Brazilian fusion cuisine. São Paulo deserves its crown as the Brazilian capital of Japanese food, but Rio is not far behind these days. Tuna sashimi tostada is a particularly enjoyable introduction to this unique cuisine.
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