One of the best ways to learn about a new country is diving into its cuisine. And part of this assimilating to a new place is a slow, yet steady, transformation of diet — a tug of war of continuing your culinary traditions from home, and adapting to new surroundings.
Over the past five months that I’ve spent in Brazil, I’ve witnessed this process first hand.
For example, I’ve sadly dropped my very Californian habit of making avocado toast as a snack. Despite multiple attempts, I just wasn’t feeling the jumbo sized avocados down here. Either that or I just am incapable of judging their ripeness.
On the other hand, I have desperately held onto my morning tradition of making fruit smoothies. That meals transitions well to most places on Earth as long as you have a blender. Also, like a true gringo, I always have my eyes peeled for a top notch peanut butter.
Through my five months traveling around four different states of Brazil, I’ve been able to get a lay of the land of the alimentary customs. Some of the food quirks feel like home, while others feel a world away.
Here are five of the culinary curiosities that have caught my attention:
1. A banana is a banana, right?
In California when I go to the grocery store, nine times out of ten, the only banana options are organic or non-organic. In Brazil, that is not the case. You need to know your bananas.
Most grocery stores will have 4-6 options in the banana department, ranging greatly in shapes and sizes.
It’s important to know which are meant for cooking or you aren’t going to be very satisfied when you bite into a tough, chewy banana.
My go-to’s are the banana prata for eating raw, and the banana da terra for cooking.
2. The wonders of manioc
Before coming to Brazil, I don’t think I had ever eating the manioc root in my life (also known as cassava), but living in Brazil you will be hard pressed to avoid it. The manioc, which is called aipim in the south and macaxeira in the north of the country, has been the staple crop of Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans, and the Brazilians utilize a great varieties of methods to consume it.
The root can be boiled and eaten raw, turned into a soup, turned into flour to make pasta or bread, prepared as tapioca (something like a tortilla), or sprinkled as a garnish on meat called farofa.
It’s the ultimate Swiss army knife of roots.
3. Jackfruit is everywhere, but who’s eating it?
Being a vegan in the US, I noticed that jackfruit has climbed the charts as a popular alternative to meat. I’ve tried it a few times and while it’s ok, I’ve never felt it was so amazing that I needed to learn how to cook it.
As you stroll around the forested hills of Rio, you will undoubtedly noticed the gigantic, spiky fruits hanging from the trees or pungently rotting on the ground. Those are, in fact, jackfruit.
The jackfruit is not native to Brazil, but it found its way to Brazilian soil and has begun to dominate the tropical coastal forests, especially around Rio.
While the jackfruit is extremely abundant here, there is little demand for its consumption. The fruits sit on the ground, getting eaten by bugs, and no one bats an eye.
I’ve only seen some small, specialist restaurants that have it, and I’ve never seen it for sale at the supermarket. Apparently the fruit can fetch a pretty penny in Europe though.
4. Not all açaí is the same
Brazil is the home of açaí, but I’ve learned you need to know how to select it wisely.
In my opinion, the best açaí is the one that is as natural as possible. Some places add absurd amounts of sugar or sweet syrups into their mixes that really make it more like ice cream than a fruit bowl.
Once you live in Brazil for a bit, you start to learn where the good stuff is and how to sniff out a crappy açaí.
5. Green veggies are MIA
Growing up in the US, having some sort of a green vegetable with every meal was a family staple. Whether it was broccoli, green beans, brussel sprouts, or asparagus, there were veggies (even though I hated them). I think I can generally speak for many people in that regard.
However, in Brazil, eating the green veggies that I grew up accustomed to is pretty rare. They tend to be rather scare at the grocery stores, not many restaurants serve them, and I don’t think I’ve even seen a family preparing them. (Small sample size, I know.)
I am accustomed to most home cooked meals featuring some type of green veggies, but here that is definitely not the case.
Learning culture through food
Learning about the food and eating habits of a new country is one of the funnest parts of understanding a culture. Everyone’s got to eat and everyone has their own way of going about it. During my time in Brazil I have been both consciously and subconsciously absorbing their culinary customs, and when the time comes to leave this amazing country, I know the best cooking tips will stick around with me.