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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Brazil

Historic Diet

Brazilian Food - Rice and pork
Rice & pork

Brazil has an incredible variety of plants and animals and when the earliest settlers arrived they used many of these for food. However, due to the diversity of the landscape and the inability to pass through many parts of the rainforests, some foods tended to be more regional although others easily spread and were found throughout the modern country by the time the earliest settlers had arrived.

Fruits and other plants made up a substantial part of the early diet as there was an abundance of these foods in the region. Among the more popular of these foods were cassava (yuca), yams, mango, papaya, guava, passion fruit, and pineapples among many other less well-known fruits and vegetables. In some parts of the region the people also had access to pine trees, brazil trees, and peanut trees, all of which were used for their nuts (or legumes in the case of the peanut). There were various other plants that provided foods, including beans.

The early people also used many of the native animals for food, primarily including small mammals, such as rabbits, monkeys, and others. However for most people seafood from the Amazon River or the oceans was more important. Among the most common freshwater fish used for food were pirarucu (arapaima), catfish, and pike.

Culinary Influences

Brazilian Food - Coxinha

The lands that today are called Brazil were home to numerous foods, such as pineapples, peanuts, Brazil nuts, and others, but it was the first people that changed the diet to form the base that is known today. New foods arrived to the region with the winds, waters, animals, and with the first settlers as tomatoes, peppers, corn (maize), potatoes, melons, squash, papayas, chocolate, vanilla, avocado, and other foods were all introduced to the region at about the same time.

With a vast array of foods available, these early settlers used plants and animals to form their diet, including both the plants native to the region as well as those later introduced. From this point into the 1400s, little changed in the diet other than in food combinations and cooking techniques as the people truly lived off the land as hunters, gathers, fishers, and later as farmers.

The Europeans arrived and settled the region in the 1400-1500s and most of them demanded the same foods they ate in Europe. This led to the introduction of European dishes, cooking techniques, and ingredients. Some dishes were brought over without any changes, but most of these dishes required ingredients that weren't present in Brazil so these settlers found local foods to use as substitutes, while at other times they introduced new plants and animals to the region.

Much of this European influence came from Portugal as the region became a Portuguese colony and most settlers were from that country. Even today the heavy Portuguese influence is impossible to miss, although most dishes in Brazil reflect the indigenous diet more than they do Portugal, as most of the ingredients used today in dishes are native to Brazil or other parts of the Americas.

Brazilian Food - Acaraje

The Portuguese weren't the only ones to leave their mark on the cuisine of the country. The Spanish had some influence, as did the Germans and Italians among others. However, in Bahia, the influence is primarily African as cassava, fish, and coconut milk tend to be the base for most dishes.

Despite adopting many local plants and animals for dishes, including the European-inspired dishes, the Europeans also introduced some new plants and animals. The most important animal introduced was the cattle, which provide both meat and dairy products, two staples in the diet today. They also introduced grapes, wheat, rice, pigs, and chicken. Others were also introduced and are now common in Brazil, although they differ in terms of popularity and importance. Some are commonly used, while others are not, but they include onions, cilantro, black pepper, limes, garlic, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, olives, bananas, apples, lemons, and oranges among others.

The cattle industry was, and still is, most prevalent in southern Brazil, near the Argentine border. In this region there is a strong Argentine influence as ranching is common and the churrasco or barbeque is a way of life (known in South American Spanish speaking countries as asado). Today churrasco is a national favorite, although it remains more common in southern Brazil.

Since the late 1800s the diet has been constantly changing, but during this time the changes have been primarily due to technological changes. Better transportation and storage techniques allow the importation (and exportation) of foreign foods, which are now easily accessible in large cities. This time has also altered cooking techniques and the eating culture as fast food has been introduced, as have already prepared frozen foods. However, these influences are rarely seen outside the capital city and few people eat them on a regular basis.

Also in the past century new waves of immigrants have arrived to Brazil, most notably from Japan. These immigrants have made Japanese cooking common in many large cities and have also encouraged the growth in popularity of "Asian" foods in general.

In the past couple decades there has been a growing trend as large cities are opening more ethnic restaurants. Although these foods have rarely affected the local diet, they are a growing trend as Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Mexican, Indian, and vegetarian restaurants are all easy to find in every large city.

When & Where to Eat

Breakfast in Brazil is often referred to just as "cafe-de-manha" or "cafe," which means morning coffee. Obviously the focus of this meal is on coffee, but from here what the people eat, if anything, varies. Fruit, bread or pastries, and ham are all common in various areas. No matter what the food is though, it tends to be light. Due to the small breakfast many Brazilians also have a snack in the morning, generally consisting of crackers, cookies, or a small sandwich. Little else is eaten at this time to save room for lunch.

Lunch, known in Brazil as almoco, tends to be the largest meal of the day. This is often a multi-course meal consisting of rice or pasta along with meats and vegetables. A starter like soup and dessert are also fairly common. Today the length and complexity of this meal is very dependent on jobs and lifestyle as many people can't have an extended lunch break so eat a smaller lunch then a larger dinner, while for others the opposite is true. Most Brazilians eat lunch at about 11:30 am or noon and don't tend to finish until about 1:30 or even later if this is their largest meal of the day. For those in the city most people eat in the office or at a restaurant, like a pizzeria or a lanchonete, which is a quick service restaurant.

The afternoon is again usually interrupted by a snack and it is usually accompanied by coffee or tea. Dinner is a bit bigger, but is generally smaller than lunch, but again this depends on the person as many people working in the cities have little time during the lunch break so dinner is the largest meal of the day. The time of dinner also vastly varies as the urbanites tend to prefer eating late; usually eating at about 10:00 pm, while in other parts of the country dinner is taken at about 7:00 pm. Although most meals are eaten at home, in the larger cities going out to eat at a restaurant, or restaurantes, is a common occurrence.

Staple Foods

Beans: usually served as a side or mixed with rice
Beef: perhaps not a true staple, but beef and other grilled meats are so common they are the centerpiece of many meals
Pasta: pastas are a popular staple in some regions with Italian influence, especially in the south
Pastries: pastries are commonly served for snacks, breakfast, or dessert as they can be seen everywhere
Potatoes: not as common as some parts of South America, but potatoes are a common side
Rice: often served as a side or mixed with beans; but due to Italian influence the rice dish, risotto is also popular

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Arroz com pequi: this rice dish is made with chicken and pequi (or souari nut) and is common in the Amazon
Bolos: the general term for a cake, all sorts of bolos are extremely popular in Brazil
Churrasco: this refers to barbequing meats and vegetables over a flame and is a favorite everywhere, most commonly in the south
Feijoada: the national dish is a stew of beans with a meat like beef or pork and vegetables
Kibe/Quibe: inspired by the Middle East's kibbeh, this dish is made with bulgur wheat, onions, and beef or lamb

Dining Etiquette

The Brazilians aren't the most punctual people, but on South American standards they are so try arriving to meals about 15 minutes late. If invited to a local's home be sure to bring a small gift like chocolates or wine.

No matter where you dine, be sure to wash your hands prior to sitting down and you may also want to consider using the restroom as getting up during the meal is rude and sometimes you can be at the table for a couple hours as conversation dominates most meals. Once you have washed your hands let your host show you a seat as they may have a seating arrangement; sometimes honored guests will be placed between the hosting couple to spark conversation. If dining with a small group in a restaurant you may be placed at a table with other people; politely ignore them although they may engage you in conversation when they notice you're foreign.

Once seated the most important rule is to be social, but avoid sensitive subjects such as politics, religion, money, and even business (if you're meeting local business associates wait for them to bring up business first). Also be sure to keep your hands within sight by resting your wrists on the edge of the table and place your napkin in your lap.

The meal may begin with a drink, but before drinking let your host give a toast, the most common toast is "saude," which means "to your health." Eating should also begin with your host's invitation, but as a guest you may be the first served. Eating is done in the continental style, meaning the knife should remain in your right hand and the fork in your left; get used to this style as everything but bread and sandwiches are eaten with utensils, including fruits among others. The bread should be placed on your plate or on the table itself as bread plates are rare.

You should try everything offered to you and if you enjoy something compliment the host and you will quickly be offered more. If asked to pass a dish or a seasoning, be sure to pass to your left. When you are finished eating, place the fork and knife together across the plate from right to left. Don't get up from the table until everyone is done and your host invites everyone to get up together. After the main meal you may be offered dessert, such as cake, or a drink like coffee.

If eating in a restaurant the inviter is expected to pay for everyone, although guests are expected to offer to assist. If you are the host or are just dining with other foreigners call the server by holding up your right index finger and make eye contact. Your server will not give you your check until you specifically request it, but you can do this by saying "a conta, por favor." For good service a tip of about 10% is standard.

Celebrations & Events

There are a number of foods tied to celebrations and events in Brazil, but most of these foods are eaten at all celebrations as opposed to certain holidays having very specific foods. Generally speaking, at celebratory meals the Brazilians tend to replace their staple foods of rice and beans with pasta, polenta, lentils, chickpeas, or black-eyed peas. This is true for most holidays, but especially with Christmas and New Year's Eve. Another favorite celebratory food is salgadinhos, which are salty snacks similar to Spanish tapas.

One holiday synonymous with Brazil is Carnaval, which ends on the Tuesday prior to Lent (and beginning the Friday before); it usually takes place in late February or early March. This festival, centered in Rio de Janeiro, is a time to eat and drink in excess prior to Lent so the availability of drinks and foods in Rio and throughout Brazil is plentiful as this is a great time to experience the culture and try any local food (preferably unhealthy foods) that you can think of.


Brazil has nearly any common drinks one can think of including tea and soft drinks, but the Brazilians tend to prefer coffee or fresh squeezed juice. Coffee is extraordinarily popular and many people have at least one cup a day. Likewise, juices are popular with mango, papaya, orange, passion fruit, pineapple, and even cocoa being commonly used to make juices.

Brazil has nearly every kind of alcoholic beverage a person can think of, but few are authentically Brazilian. The most original of the alcohols in Brazil is cachaca, which is a liquor that is distilled from sugar cane that is quite popular; it's easy to find in a mixed drink. Beer, wine, and other liquors can also be found, with many beers being produced locally (although most major international brands are also available), and much of the wine comes from nearby countries like Argentina and Chile.

Generally speaking, the tap water is safe to drink in Brazil, but check with locals for any particular regional differences. Also, many people may have troubles adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to.

This page was last updated: April, 2013