A product of the largest nation in South America, Brazilian cuisine is as exciting and diverse as the land itself. Its roots run deep, beginning with the cooking styles and ingredients of the indigenous people. Over the centuries, Portuguese colonists, slaves from Africa and later arrivals contributed to what is now a truly remarkable culinary landscape. A tour of several notable regions reveals the great variety awaiting the adventurous “taste bud tourist.”



Bahia

The state of Bahia is located in the northeast part of Brazil, along the Atlantic Ocean. Centuries ago, slaves were brought there from Africa to work in vast sugar cane fields. They relied upon food staples they were familiar with in Africa, most notably dende oil (a bright yellow-orange palm oil), hot peppers, okra, cassava and yams. These ingredients remain an integral part of the region's cuisine to this day.

One popular snack that has its origins in Bahia is called acarajé. Made from mashed beans and spiced with peppers, the fritters are fried in dende oil then cut in half and served with a pepper sauce. They can be served as an appetizer or eaten on the go. Another popular dish is abará, a mixture of mashed cowpeas and shrimp, seasoned with peppers and dende oil, then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over coals or an open fire.

The cooking style of this region is popular enough to be featured in a line of frozen retail products available at the website www.brazilianshop.com. Dishes include: risole de camarão (pastry filled with shrimp), risole de carne (pastry filled with ground beef), and risole de frango (pastry filled with chicken).

Bahia cuisine also can be found far from its origins. Chicago restaurateur and caterer Jorgina Pereira is originally from Bahia and owns Sinhá Elegant Cuisine. “Sinhá means, in Brazil, the lady of the house that oversees the household, especially the food. My business has really picked up since I've opened it,” says Pereira. She has been in the U.S. for 25 years and has been in the food industry for half that time. Some of her specialty menu items are: bolinho de bacalhau (codfish fritters), risoles of artichoke hearts (half-moon shaped pastries filled with artichoke hearts and cheese), and bobó de camarão (a shrimp stew made of large shrimp, yucca and coconut milk).



Mineira

The Mineira region is located far inland from the Atlantic coast and is predominately plains and productive farmland. Native people and Portuguese settlers both influenced the regional cuisine. Dominant crops include beans, coffee, corn and fruit. Beef and dairy cattle are raised in great abundance there as well.

Queijo Minas is one of the popular cheeses produced in the region. It is semi-hard and can be eaten fresh or ripened, spread on bread and eaten at breakfast or served as a dessert accompanied by guava paste. It is the preferred cheese for making the nationally popular dish Pao de Queijo Forno Minas (cheese bread).

Yoki is a Brazilian-based company that manufactures Pao de Queijo using Forno Minas cheese and manioc flour, derived from the tropical cassava root. Yoki is a family-owned business that was founded in 1960. A global exporter, it makes about 300 products, including candies and others based on cereal, flour, and starches.



Sertão

The Sertão region, located in the Northeast, is mostly arid but is home to such exotic fruits as guavas, mangos and carambolas. Feijoada Completa, the Brazilian national dish, also comes from this region. It is made of smoked meat and black beans and served with rice and cooked shredded kale greens on the side. Dried salted meats known as carne seca are also popular.



Gaucha

The Gaucha region, located in the Brazilian highlands, is known for churrascarias, the Brazilian style of barbecuing. Beef, pork, lamb and chicken are all featured in this style of cooking. A mildly spicy, regional sausage known as chourico also is well-liked.

Churrascaria-style restaurants have started to pop up in the U.S. Fogo de Chao has opened six restaurants in major cities in America: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington. Guests at Fogo de Chao experience espeto corrido, a continuous service of fresh meat that is fire-roasted on skewers and then cut at their tables by chefs dressed as gauchos (South American cowboys). There are about 15 different types of unlimited servings of meats to choose from, along with a 40-item gourmet salad buffet, fresh cut vegetables and a variety of Brazilian side dishes.

Other restaurants have followed in the footsteps of the chain. The Texas de Brazil Churrascaria chain has 12 locations throughout America; Sal & Carvao Churrascaria Brazilian Steakhouse has three locations; and Brazzaz, The Brazilian Steakhouse recently opened in Chicago.



The Amazon Rainforest

Few people in the world have not heard of the Amazon River, and its mention can conjure up images of mystery, danger and…piranha! Yet the culinary contributions of the Amazon rainforest rarely spring immediately to mind. Today, local beverage manufacturers have started marketing fruits and berries that grow in the rainforest because of their unique, exotic flavors and purported health benefits.

The cupuacu fruit is one example. It is used to flavor smoothies, desserts, liqueur, chocolate and even salami. The fruit tastes like a combination of banana and lime.

There is also a beverage made from acai berries, which grow on the acai palm tree. Marketed as Zola Acai and sold in 11oz containers at specialty grocery stores such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods Market, this drink has captured U.S. consumer interest, as it provides many times the amount of antioxidants found in red wine, several vitamins and beneficial fatty acids.

For many years, Amazonian tribal warriors consumed acai mixed with guarana, a nut that grows locally in the rainforest, to increase strength, heighten awareness and improve mental clarity. Zola Acai claims to be loaded with antioxidants, omega fatty acids and amino acids. The beverage is made of purified water, acai fruit pulp, organic cane sugar, citric acid, natural acai powder, natural caffeine and natural flavors.

Food enthusiasts will enjoy sampling the different dishes inspired by Brazil and its immense variety of fruits, vegetables and cooking styles. Luckily, a crop of new Brazilian restaurants and the Internet put these Latin American flavors within the grasp of many.



Website Resources:

www.sinhaelegantcuisine.com — Chicago restaurateur's website
www.fogodechao.com — Restaurant site with menus and locations
www.salecarvao.com — Restaurant site with menus and locations
www.zolaacai.com — Beverage manufacturer website, ordering and retailer info.