South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Make like a carioca and order your ice-cold chopp beer with a choice of salty, deep-fried snacks and juicy skewers of meat.
Photographs by Samuel Antonini
Brazil, with its abundant natural resources and European influences, has a rich culinary tradition. Though menus may at first appear to be an impenetrable stream of unintelligible options and unpronounceable words, Brazilians are loyal to many of their national staples, so with a little guidance it can be easy to hone in on some favourites.
Petiscos, in some form or other, begin the menu at almost every restaurant. It is a term that encompasses snacks and small starters, often deep-fried. When lazily plucked from the freezer and thrown into the fryer they can be a sad mouthful of sawdust, but when freshly made they are spectacular. They are best eaten held in a napkin, as hot as can be handled and smothered in homemade chilli oil or Tabasco.
Bolinhos are crunchy pingpong- ball-sized bites of cod (bacalhau) or sun-dried meat (carne seca) mixed with a soft and fluffy potato and parsley mash, which has been breaded and fried. A larger pear-shaped version, thecoxinha, which emerged as a snack for factory workers in São Paulo many years ago, is filled with shredded chicken and is sometimes garnished with a wishbone sticking through it.
Cod-filled bolinhos at Bracarense
Ranging from stamp-sized squares to large folded pockets, pasteis are a vehicle for almost anything. Cheese, shrimp and meat are fairly standard, but pumpkin, chicken and cream cheese, black beans and aipim (cassava) are popular too.
Barbecued chicken, also at Bracarense
In other parts of the world, tapioca has a mixed reputation – an unpalatable postwar pudding in Britain; the floating balls in bubble tea in Asia – yet in Brazil it is a versatile staple that crops up consistently. Made from ground manioc root, it is used by street vendors to make chewy white pancakes filled with either sweet or savoury fillings.
In pearl form, mixed with dried meat or cheese and fried, the balls congeal into hot and gooey little bites. In its flour form it is ubiquitous in every home and bakery as the main ingredient of the country’s famous pão de queijo, or cheesy-bread balls.
Served piping hot from the oven pão de queijo are stringy, stretchy and steaming – and addictive.
At the heart of Brazilian restaurant life, however, is the churrasco. Barbecues are both a way to bring families and friends together and to satisfy, if only for a short while, the country’s insatiable appetite for meat. Techniques honed by the gauchos of Rio Grande do Sul, a cowrearing state on the border with Argentina, have migrated north and been adopted countrywide. Seasoning is restricted to salt and the grill sits over a bed of glowing charcoal.
A typical churrascaria will have a rodizio-style service where waiters circle the room, presenting giant skewers of juicy meat at your side for you to pick from. Though picanha, from the rump, is the favoured cut, many other parts of the cow, as well as the farmyard will come by. Sausages are eaten with chilli and a squeeze of lime and the mini chicken hearts, considered a delicacy, are a must-try. No churrasco would be complete without a side of farofa. The little heap of flour is often a mystery to visitors when they arrive in Brazil, but the ground manioc absorbs the bloody juices on the plate for the ultimate meaty mouthful.
Where to eat
On a corner in the heart of Copacabana, Pavão Azul is an unremarkable looking Rio beer bar that has a loyal fan base and is always bursting at the seams. Its bolinhos de bacalhau, made without potato, are particularly delightful and go nicely with an ice-cold chopp (draft beer). Bar Bracarense’s dense bomb-like balls, stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese (among many others), are practically meals in themselves but that won’t stop you ordering more. The speciality at Aconchego Carioca is the bolinho filled with feijoada, a mix of black beans and dried meat – essentially a Brazilian Sunday lunch in a mouthful.
Bar Bracarense’s bomb-like balls stuffed with shrimp and cream cheese are meals in themselves – but that won’t stop you ordering more
Competing alongside the burger at Comuna for the affections of the hipster bar’s many fans is the Daltin de Tapioca. Neat deep-fried cubes of tapioca stuffed with canastra and other grilled cheeses are pricked with a toothpick before being dunked in a dipping sauce of chillied sugar-cane molasses. Lunch at Felice Caffè, a consistently good beach-side stop in Ipanema, starts well with its crispy tapioca nuggets laced with carne seca. And although you can hardly take a step in Rio without catching sight of a heap of pão de queijo it is worth making the trip to Aprazivel in Santa Teresa. The food is from Minas Gerais state, where the cheese bread was first made at the end of the 19th century. Try the version stuffed with a mini sausage.
Cheesy tapioca cubes with chilli sauce at Comuna
Crispy tapioca nuggets laced with dried meat, served at Felice Caffè
Fogo de Chão is the don of Brazilian barbecue, in Brazil and beyond. A word of warning: exercise restraint at the generous buffet bar before the meat starts circulating, otherwise you will be flipping your paddle from green to red before you’ve tucked into the best cuts. CT Boucherie turns the traditional barbecue model on its head, asking you to choose your cut or type of meat, before tempting you with a range of side dishes that seem to arrive at your side endlessly. Braseiro da Gáveais the neighbourhood darling that never fails to deliver. The queuing punters outside are placated with beer and sliced sausage before sitting down to the only dish you need to know about. The picanha do Braseiro is a hunk of top-notch meat, which comes with green broccoli rice, chips and farofa with eggs and banana. It is always worth the wait.