Brazilian Cuisine

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, EdD, RD

I lived in Sao Paulo for several months and never thought about meat. As a 15-year-old high school student from New York, I was amazed, delighted, and almost demented by the fist-sized strawberries, the starburst orange mangos, and an array of tropical fruits that I couldn’t even begin to name. Brazil had some of the most beautiful produce I had ever seen, and it was all off-limits. Let me explain: the farms around Sao Paulo at the time utilized Japanese farming techniques, which included fertilizing with “night soil,” or human waste. I was told it was too big a risk to eat any of the luscious fresh fruit or to sam-ple any of the refreshing fresh fruit shakes available on any corner.

So, for a while, I satisfied my culinary curiosity with street food. Pastels and empanadas were fried doughs of varying textures, stuffed with potatoes, onions, garlic, ground nuts, fresh peas, or coconut. There was avocado ice cream which is a non-dairy sweet purée of avocado and sugar. To wash it down, there was a brand of soda, called “Antarctica,” which advertised its ingredients as “Amazon fruits.” Guarana, a softly carbonated beverage made from an extract of the bark of the guarana bush, could be purchased from street vendors. If you desired a hot beverage, there was yerba mate, an herb “coffee,” or the super-caffeinated cafezinho (say “café zeen nyo”), a potent French press shot of strongly roasted coffee. I’d bet that if you measured the blood levels of most Brazilians, you’d probably find that at least half their blood is composed of cafezinho. It is served at meals, between meals, and for snacks, and puts an American espresso to shame. I’ve read that in urban areas, the average Brazilian drinks 12 to 24 of these caffeine bombs per day. With all the street food and the beverages, who has time to think about regular meals?

Brazil covers almost half of South America and has a huge range of climates. Between the vast and varied growing areas and the influence of Portuguese invaders and West African slaves, Brazil has a cornucopia of foods and menus. If you are in one area, beef is served at every meal; in another area, eggs and dairy are very important; and in still other areas, fish and seafood are what is popular.

However, before all the foreign invaders hit Brazil, the very important food items were beans, manioc root, cassava, coconuts, avocados, and lots of tropical and temperate fruits, such as oranges, papayas, and limes. Brazilian diets revolved around black beans and manioc meal. Beef and rice, two of today’s popular Brazilian ingredients, were imported.

These days, Brazil is a huge exporter of coffee, sugar cane, soybeans, citrus fruit, avocados, cocoa beans, and bananas. Large bean and rice crops help to feed the country. So how come many people think of beef and pork as being integral to Brazilian cuisine?

Brazilian gauchos or cowboys make their meals from beef and manioc root. Beef is an important part of Brazil’s economy and is incorporated into many dishes. However, beef is an important part of a small amount of Brazil’s total cuisine, more popular in the actual cattle-raising areas.

Of major health concern in Brazil is the amount of dende or palm oil, and coconut oil, used. Both are saturated fats and can cause the same sort of heart disease as fat from animals. Polyunsaturated fats are scoffed at in Brazil! If someone’s not cooking with saturated tropical oils, then he or she is using animal fat! Much of Brazil’s street food and festive foods are deep-fried and served with coconut. The good news is that these super-fried foods are meant for special occasions and not for everyday use. Moderation is everything!

In fact, the Brazilian families who invited me to their homes usually had the following staples at each meal: steamed black beans or black-eyed peas, and steamed rice seasoned with hot pepper sauce and sprinkled with manioc powder. You knew this would always be on the table, with perhaps a cold heart-of-palm salad or some cooked greens. Family breakfasts would usually be fresh fruit and juice, the ever-present coffee, hot milk, bread, and some cheeses. Lunch and dinner were heavy affairs, with sandwiches and salads saved for snack foods. Tea was usually served right before bedtime, with warm milk and some cookies or sweets.

Feijoada started out as a simple Portuguese stew of beans and vegetables. The Brazilians adopted it and amplified it, and it has become the national dish. Feijoada completa is a buffet meal centered around a stew of black beans, meat, and sausage. The best parts of a feijoada to me are the side dishes: lots of fluffy steamed rice and farofa, a soft but firm stuffing-like dish made with manioc meal, or piroas (a chewy but crispy cracker bread that can have olives, raisins, coconut, or sliced vegetables in it). A variety of greens may be served, including collards, spinach, or taioba (also called “elephant ears”), that have been slow-cooked for a tender texture. It is difficult to find a vegetarian feijoada, as the traditional flavors rely so heavily on meat. Steamed black beans cooked with smoked tempeh, onions, and garlic could take the place of feijoada on a vegetarian Brazilian buffet. The actual technique for feijoada would be to cook the beans until they are tender, then remove half and mash them with a fat (traditionally lard or butter, but vegans can use margarine), chopped onions, and minced garlic. Next, the mashed beans are returned to the pot and cooked until creamy. If you want to go really Brazilian, you could thicken the stew with manioc root and add some coconut milk. However, you can forego the coconut milk and thicken with additional beans or mashed potatoes.

Cozinha Baiana or Bahian cuisine is the assemblage of distinctly African-influenced dishes in Brazil. Bahia is an area near the port of Salvador where many African slaves were brought into Brazil. The African influence can be seen in crops of peanuts, pumpkin or winter squash, bananas, yams, okra, chilies, and beans. I’ve included a recipe for stewed pumpkin that shows the Bahian influence.

There is a variety of popular starches in Brazil. Europeans brought rice, and it was quickly accepted. The traditional way to prepare a pot of Brazilian rice is to sauté the rice in some fat and steam it, using coco-nut milk as some of the cooking liquid. There go the calories! Manioc, a starchy root, is used like tapioca and is seen in sweet and savory dishes, or used as a main ingredient or a thickener. Farina and other cereal grains are used to make hot porridges, as thickeners for stews, and to make steamed dessert puddings. In northern Brazil, you’ll find cuzcuz, steamed like Moroccan couscous and made into a steamed, sweet, starchy cake with coconut milk and grated coconut. In the south, you’ll find cuzcuzeiro, an elegant, savory main dish mixed with heavy seasonings.

The flavors of Brazilian cuisine can usually be identified as African or Portuguese. Acarje sauce, of African origin, is a blend of palm oil, onions, ginger, and hot chilies. Nago sauce has palm oil, lemon juice, cooked okra, and pepper. Lemon sauce is made with hot chili peppers, lemon juice, salt, garlic, and onions. Tempero means “seasoning” in Portuguese, and can be either Portuguese or African. Portuguese tempero has onions, garlic, parsley, and tomatoes; African tempero usually has coconut milk, palm oil, and hot chili peppers.

Fortunately, Brazil has a multitude of tropical fruits for snacks and desserts. Traditional Brazilian desserts could keep a cardiologist in business forever! Bolo Bebado or “Drunken cake” is an egg- and sugar-laden cake soaked in sugar and rum. Avocado cream and ice cream are very popular and are eaten as desserts and snacks. Brazilian Ambrosia is a heavy custard containing lots of eggs, milk, and sugar, and sometimes flavored with passion fruit. My suggestion is to eat the passion fruit and forget the custard.

There are plenty of wonderful healthy, vegan alternatives to dairy-based desserts. Smoothie shops specialize in fruit shakes, and some places offer up to 100 different selections. These can be made with or without ice cream and are usually just a combination of fresh juice and fruit. Consider a banana-mango shake or a passion fruit-orange shake. Although they are served as beverages, they could easily make a light lunch.

Oh, and yes I did eventually indulge in fresh fruit. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I launched into a fresh mango, the likes of which I have never experienced again. I quickly learned to munch on papayas, tangerines, bananas, berries, and lots of grapes, or to enjoy them in shakes. And I’m here to tell the tale!

As a side note, I visited a local Brazilian restaurant in Long Beach, California. It is a cozy neighborhood place, with a menu divided between Italian and Brazilian dishes. The cook/owner grew up near Sao Paulo and is half Italian and half Brazilian. I noted many vegetarian Italian pizzas, pastas, and submarine sandwiches, but no vegetarian Brazilian dishes. The owner, a charming woman, explained that she had been in the restaurant business for many years in Brazil and had not had requests for vegetarian cuisine. When she opened her business in California, she got requests for vegetarian Italian dishes and so she started to offer them. Yet, she has still not had requests for vegetarian Brazilian food. She tried some vegetarian appetizers—coxinha, esiha, and risolls, traditionally stuffed with chicken and beef, alternately using savory potato and manioc filling—but her customers didn’t go for them. What’s nice is that she is willing to accommodate customers who want to try Brazilian cuisine without meat. If an item can be prepared without meat and still retain authentic flavor, she will do it.

And if you happen to be in Rio, Fellini Restaurant in Rio De Janeiro is family-run and is an upscale, but casual, restaurant. Located two blocks from Leblon Beach, the restaurant is in a beautiful location in Rio. It offers an international buffet that changes at lunch and dinner. Although not strictly vegetarian, the buffet always has homemade pasta, lots of vegetables, salads, Brazilian seasonal fruit, fresh-baked breads, stewed and roasted vegetable dishes, steamed and seasoned rice, vegetarian sushi, bean dishes, and feijao (black beans stewed with manioc root). The owners, the Laskowsky family, say they are very happy to accommodate vegetarians. What’s nice is that you choose what you want and pay for what you select. Your plate is then weighed at the end of the buffet. A heaping plate costs about $5-7 American. Visit the restaurant’s website to get a picture of the buffet!

Abobora Refogada

Stewed Pumpkin

(Serves 3-4)

This dish is pretty, has lots of nutrients and fiber, and is easy to prepare.

  • 1 pound fresh pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch squares
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 green onions, chopped

In a large pot, combine pumpkin, oil, garlic, and onions. Put heat on medium and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are coated with oil. Add a few tablespoons of water. Cover, reduce heat, stirring occasionally, and cook about 30 minutes or until pumpkin is soft to the touch. Serve as a side dish, or purée and use as a sauce for cooked grains.

Note: If pumpkin is not available, any hard winter squash, such as turban or butternut, can be used instead.

Total calories per serving: 126 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 3 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram


little peasant girl

(Serves 2)

This refreshing (and very intoxicating) drink is Brazil’s answer to the margarita. Though this drink is usually made with pinga, a distillate of sugar cane, you can use light rum instead. If you prefer to make this a “family” drink, just skip the alcohol altogether.

  • 2 small limes
  • 4 teaspoons vegan granulated sweetener*
  • 2 Tablespoons light rum (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon rum extract
  • ¾ cup crushed ice

Wash and chill two glass tumblers. Peel the limes, but save the peels. Cut each lime into 4 pieces and place into each glass. Put 2 teaspoons of the sweetener into each glass. Mash well with the back of a spoon or a pestle (if you have one) until the lime is mostly pulp. Add 1 tablespoon rum (if desired) and ½ teaspoon rum extract to each glass. Stir so that the lime, sweetener, and extract are well-mixed. Cover with ice, stir, and allow ice to melt until lime and ice are mostly liquid. Garnish with curled lime peel before serving. Drink slowly and enjoy!

Total calories per serving: 67 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 2 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Sopa de Milho

Corn Soup

(Serves 4)

This soup is fast, flavorful, and comforting.

  • One 16-ounce can corn, drained, or 2 cups thawed frozen corn
  • 4 cups plain soymilk or rice milk
  • ½ cup chopped onions
  • 1 slice bread, crumbled (stale is best)
  • 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh chilies

Put corn, soymilk, onions, and bread in a blender or food processor. Blend until you have a smooth, but still a little chunky, mixture. Pour into a medium saucepan and bring to a quick boil. Add pepper and reduce heat. Allow to simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Garnish with parsley and chilies right before serving.

Total calories per serving: 181 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 27 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 72 milligrams Fiber: 6 gram

Salada de Arroz

Rice salad

(Serves 4)

This is a colorful cold salad and a great way to use leftover cooked rice.

  • 2 cups cooked white rice (¾ cup uncooked)
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped canned pimentos or fresh red bell peppers
  • ¼ cup chopped green bell peppers
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped onions
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh chilies (you choose the heat)
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon ground white pepper

In a large, nonreactive bowl, mix rice, pimentos, green bell pepper, onion, and chilies. In a small bowl, mix oil, vinegar, and pepper. Add oil mixture to rice and toss well. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving.

Total calories per serving: 151 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 25 grams
Sodium: 6 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Salada de Palmito y Tomate

Palm and Tomato Salad

(Serves 4)

This salad makes a beautiful display.

  • 3 leaves romaine lettuce, washed and chopped
  • One 16-ounce can hearts of palm, drained and cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges (about 1-½ cups)
  • 1 small onion, thinly sliced (about ⅓ cup)
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 teaspoons olive oil
  • ½ cup prepared croutons

Place romaine lettuce on a serving platter. Arrange hearts of palm and tomatoes on lettuce. Arrange onions on top of vegetables. In a small bowl, mix together garlic, pepper, lemon juice, and oil. Sprinkle over onions. Allow to chill for at least 30 minutes. Garnish with croutons right before serving.

Total calories per serving: 105 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 371 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


Black bean fritters

(Serves 4)

Feijoada is Brazil’s national dish, a savory stew based on black beans. Unfortunately, the remaining ingredients are all meat. Acarje is another way to show off Brazil’s love of black beans. And you really get a “feel” for your acarje, as you’ll see in the recipe.

  • 1 pound dried black beans
  • ½ cup water
  • ¾ cup chopped onions
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup peanut oil (if frying) or oil spray
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • Salt to taste (optional)

Soak beans overnight, covered with cold water. Rinse and drain.

Rub each bean between your thumb and index finger to loosen and remove some of the peel. Place the beans in medium pot, cover with water, and cook, covered, over medium heat until just soft (about 20 minutes). Drain the beans and place them in a blender or food processor canister, and process until puréed. Add some or all of the water if the paste is too dry.

Place purée in a bowl (it should be the consistency of refried beans or very, very thick hummus) and mix with onions, garlic, pepper, and salt (if desired).

This is the traditional, and high-fat, method: place the cup of oil in a deep pot, heat oil until very hot, and place purée into the fat by tablespoonfuls. (Be very careful and don’t stand too close to the oil. Use a long wooden or slotted spoon to drop the fritters in, and when possible, shield yourself with the pot lid.) Allow to fry until golden brown (2 minutes). Drain on paper towels.

To lower the fat, bake the acarje. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and spray muffin tins with vegetable oil. Half-fill each tin (about two tablespoons) and allow to bake 10 minutes, or until light brown and crusty.

Alternately, you can spray a frying pan with vegetable oil spray and allow to heat. Drop by teaspoonfuls (very thinly) onto the pan and allow to cook until golden brown and firm, about 4 minutes.

Per baked serving:

Total calories per serving: 400 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 74 grams Protein: 25 grams
Sodium: 8 milligrams Fiber: 18 grams

Avocado Cream

(Serves 5)

Yes, we know, this is not a lowfat dish. If you have to indulge, though, avocados have unsaturated (healthy) fat and many nutrients. This is a very popular Brazilian dish, served cold or even frozen, like ice cream. Use it sparingly, as a special treat. By the way, it seems eating avocados sweetened, rather than savory as in guacamole, is unique to Brazil.

  • 3 very ripe avocados (about 2 cups)
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan granulated sweetener*
  • 1 Tablespoon lime juice
  • ¼ cup sweet white wine or apple juice

Combine all ingredients in a blender and purée until smooth. Pour into serving dishes and allow to chill for at least an hour before serving. Serve alone or with sliced apples, pears, or tart grapes.

Total calories per serving: 219 Fat: 18 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium:138 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE, is VRG’s Food Service Advisor and the author of, most recently, Vegan Meals for One or Two.