Brazil remains known more for its soccer and beaches than feijoada and caipirinha, the national black-bean dish and cocktail, respectively.
Outsiders typically think of Brazil as a meat-centric cuisine that worships churrascarias, all-you-can-eat steak houses like Scottsdale’s Fogo de Chão.
But Brazilians know better, and they hope the Brazil-hosted 2014 FIFA World Cup will prove their food is as exciting as their soccer.
“Our cuisine has never gotten the international buzz it deserves. Once the world learns about our food, they will fall in love and eat what we love,” said Brazilian-born Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, a Connecticut-based author of several cookbooks, including “The Brazilian Kitchen: 100 Classic and Contemporary Recipes for the Home Cook.”
There’s no shortage of reasons to eat like a Brazilian.
Their bread is cheesy. Flavored with pig’s ear, pork and Portuguese sausage, their black beans are topped with farofa, a crunchy yuca or manioc flour spiked with olives, onions and bacon. Fresh shrimp swims in a creamy yuca-based sauce that combines mild and spicy in equal measures.
“We are a foodie nation, and we make everything from scratch. We never open cans or defrost,” said Camilla Roberts, a Brazilian, who along with her aunt, Valquiria Fernandes, owns a local catering business that specializes in their native cuisine.
Brazil’s bountiful table, a reflection of its diverse geography — oceans, rivers, rain forests and mountains — borders more on tame than spicy. Unlike other Latin countries, chiles are used sparingly. Instead, the national spice, garlic, finds its way into most dishes.
“We are all about flavor, not heat,” said Fernandes, who owned the now-closed Val’s Brazilian Cuisine in Goodyear.
From the Amazon to Rio de Janeriro, Brazilian cuisine mirrors a mixture of cultures. Every region in the world’s fifth-largest country serves dishes that tell the checkerboard story of its indigenous peoples , African slaves and Portuguese explorers.
Today, food in the country of about 203 million people also documents the widening international influences from 20th-century European immigrants.
There’s no one-size-fits-all description of Brazilian food. It’s a hodgepodge of regional specialties, said Schwartz, a former chef who now owns Chef Leticia, a boutique culinary company that offers classes on Brazilian cooking, food writing and recipe development.
The influence of native Indians, who inhabited the land long before the Portuguese arrived in the 1600s, is strongest in the northern region. Yuca, a root vegetable and native staple, is ground into flour or farinha and is eaten fried or toasted. The role this plentiful vegetable plays in the food of Brazil is comparable to that of rice in Japan or corn in Mexico.
The abundance of freshwater rivers and forests in the north also make fish a staple. Probably the best known food from this region is the açai berry, which is believed to be loaded with healthful antioxidants.
In the south, the cuisine shifts toward red meat, a tradition Brazil shares with neighboring Uruguay and Argentina. The south also dishes up Italian and German favorites.
According to Schwartz, Rio, her hometown, tastes and smells like Portugal — of salt cod and garlic.
Brazilians are crazy over fruits. All the tropical fruits available in North America can be found in the country. Fruits are squeezed into juice, folded into smoothies, baked into desserts and stirred into cocktails like caipirinha and batida.
To celebrate Brazilian food during the World Cup, Roberts and Fernandes share a handful of recipes. Although just a sampling of Brazil’s mammoth menu, the dishes show off the country’s culinary diversity: pão de queijo, or cheese bread; bobó de camarão, or shrimp stew; and feijoada, or black bean and pork stew, topped with farofa. For dessert: the irresistible chocolate balls, called brigadeiro; and passion fruit mousse, the culinary equivalent of a tropical vacation.
“Defining Brazilian food as meat on a stick would be the same as calling all American cuisine barbecue,” Schwartz said. “The more you cook and eat Brazilian, the more you realize how complex and diverse our food is. Brazil is about so much more than soccer.”
Details: For catering inquiries, contact Valquiria Fernandes at email@example.com.
Brazilian food glossary
A few additional Brazilian ingredients and dishes:
• Bacalhau: A Portuguese import, this salted air-dried cod has been popular for centuries. It’s commonly used in tomato- and pepper-based stews, puddings, egg dishes and fried codfish balls.
• Banana leaves: The dried leaves are cut into squares and used to hold stuffings of vegetable, meat, fish or chicken.
• Caipirinha: Called the country’s national drink, the cocktail is made with mulled lime sections, sugar, ice and cachaça. Today, versions are made with different fruits, from grapes to strawberries.
• Churrasco: The authentic Brazilian barbecue is indigenous to Rio Grade do Sul state in southern Brazil. Hunks of meat, including ribs, steaks of every cut and all parts of the chicken, are cooked over open flames.
• Linguiça: A Portuguese pork sausage made plain or with hot chiles.
• Palmito: Fresh heart of palm is harvested from the palmito palm, used in salads, fillings and stews.
• Tamarind: The fruit of a shade tree, these pods contain seeds and a sour-sweet pulp that is used to flavor fish, meats, fruit desserts and drinks.