Like the majority of South America, Brazilians too are known for their carnivorous lifestyle with the main gastronomical attractions including meat throughout the mainland and seafood around the coastal areas. Ingredients used by the first natives of Brazil included cassava, açai, cashews and guaraná, however when immigrants started to arrive, new dishes and ingredients began to be introduced. For example, the Europeans brought wine, vegetables and dairy products whilst the enslaved Africans taught the natives how to use manioc as a replacement for potatoes during the times in which they were not yet available. Today, this tropical country’s cuisine varies from region to region, yet each culinary dish relies heavily on meats and dairy as well as fruits and root vegetables.
Despite this reality, Brazil still has a wide range of delicacies which are accidentally vegan, or which can easily be interpreted into a plant-based option. The list below provides insight into ‘vegan Brazil’, making your vegan/vegetarian travels just that little bit easier.
Açai (pronounced a-sa-ee) is an indigenous berry (similar to the blueberry) native to the rainforests which surround the Amazonian region. It is also a Brazilian delicacy, which for centuries, has been used as a healing and energy-boosting substance. Today, it is considered to be the healthiest fruit known to man-kind. Açai has an increasingly high number of health benefits which include: lowering high levels of cholesterol, aiding in weight management, improving skin conditions, clearing the digestive system, preventing aging, reducing respiratory irritation, boosting the immune system and even killing off tumorous cells.*
*(However due to these extreme levels of anti-oxidants and vitamins, it is recommended not to eat more than a maximum of 3 portions a week. It is also suggested to drink water before consuming the berry as it can make you very thirsty once you finish. Drinking too much water afterwards can cause an upset stomach as well as nausea).
Besides it’s advantages, açai is a highly refreshing meal, dessert or snack which can either be consumed in a bowl/cup to be eaten with a spoon, or as a smoothie; both served cold.
The bowled version is served like a soft ice-cream which comes in different portion sizes such as 300ml and 500ml. It is typically topped with granola, honey (without for the vegan option) and any fruit of your choice. Some also give the option of adding extra toppings for an extra charge, such as protein powder (veggie) and peanut butter (vegan). Certain places mix the chosen ingredients in blender so be sure to ask for the toppings on the side or on top if you do not want to eat it in this way. My personal favourite is a 300ml serving for breakfast (as they are very filling) topped with granola, banana and mango without the honey.
The drinkable version is less suitable for vegans as the frozen açai is blended with fruits and milk and/or yoghurt and water, unless you make your own.
Açai can be found all over the country from islands to favelas, however it varies in price depending on where you buy it from. Street vendors and those along the beaches will usually be cheaper than cafes or açai “houses”, however ,the quality may differ.
Despite sweet açai being the most globally recognised method of production, the original açai has a bitter taste. This comes from Belén in the north of Brazil, where it is most commonly used as a sauce for fish, meat and stews, and is not sold in any other part of the country. I have heard from locals that the original type is either loved or hated.. a bit like marmite I suppose.
Recommendations; sweet açai, Rio de Janeiro:
Casa do Açai (Rio, Rua Siqueira Campos, 143 – Loja 11, Copacabana) – a small bar-like spot located on a busy street with only a few high seats suitable for an açai ‘on-the-go’ rather than a ‘sit down and enjoy’. Huge variety of fruits and toppings as well as tea, coffee, freshly made sandwiches, fruit juices, salads, cold vegetarians dishes and pastries. Good value for money. Open from 8am onwards. Trip advisor approved.
Natu Sucos do Leme (Rio, R. Gustavo Sampaio, 323 – Leme) – a cute açai house on a quiet street behind the busy Leme strip. Decorated with surf boards and wall hangings. Specialising in açai, fresh juices, burgers and pastries. Ideal for breakfast and lunch. Open from 12pm onwards. Trip advisor approved.
Bibi Sucos (Rio, Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva, 591A – Leblon) – a chain cafe located across the city. Extensive menu including a wide variety of options for breakfast and lunch such as sandwiches, juices, tapioca, crepes, omelettes, milkshakes, pastas, hamburgers, fruit salads and of course endless options of açai. The açai here is more expensive than the places mentioned above and each topping is an extra charge, however the portions are extremely generous and the cafe is well located. A fairly large place with a very colourful and modern interior. Friendly staff and fast service. Outdoor street seating is also available. Open from 8am onwards.
Agua de coco is a low calorie, refreshing and natural alternative to boxed juices. Mainly known for it’s hydrating properties, fresh coconut water is used as a natural alternative to electrolytes or sports drinks for athletes and is very handy for those with hangovers as it replenishes any lost water. It is also used by those who suffer from blemishes or acne as it reduces the oil levels of the skin when applied directly. Coconut water is naturally free from fat and cholesterol, it contains low sugar but high potassium, magnesium and phosphorus levels. Due to it’s rich nature, the water suppresses the appetite and therefore is used as an aid in weight loss too.
Coconut water is considered a “luxury” drink in all countries which can not source it naturally. With sugar-filled cartons and prices starting from approximately £3 a carton, coconut water is something I have never purchased back in England. I found the taste overly sweet and definitely not “all natural” as they are claimed to be.
The first thing I noticed upon my arrival to Brazil, were the endless amount of palm trees which cover the entire country. This means, that everywhere you go, you will never be deprived of your agua de coco.
Young green coconuts are picked from the palms every day and are sold by street vendors and in almost every café or beach bar. Prices vary in each region depending on the demand and the availability. Street vendors keep the fresh coconuts in ice or in freezers until they are sold. Once purchased, a hole is cut on the top of the fruit using a machete and is usually served with a straw. When you have finished drinking the water, you can ask for the shell to be cut in half so that the flesh can be eaten. A slit is made in the outer skin of the coconut and is then pulled off to be used as a spoon. Clever, right?
In Rio, prices range from 6 to 10 reals (approx. £2) depending on the area you are in. Along the beach in Copacabana and Leblon the prices are higher. I didn’t realise how expensive this was until I went to Salvador and Recife where they were sold for 3 reals. In Morro de São Paulo and Ilha Grande, islands where coconuts fall at your feet, you can easily drink up without paying a penny, it’s great!
Feijão, or as we call them, beans, are simply boiled beans which are a Brazilian special. What makes them so unique are the ingridents that are added to make a each and every feijão different from the other. These vary from herbs and spices, to ingredients such as garlic and smoky bacon (but you might want to skip the bacon).
This is a great vegan option when travelling throughout Brazil as it can be found in every restaurant around the country. It also makes it easier to attend house visits as this dish is eaten almost everyday in each household. The beans are typically boiled with water and salt making them as healthy as they are vegan. However, some people prefer to add animal fats or stocks to add more flavour, so just make sure you ask before ordering a portion of feijao.
During my time on the island’s of Brazil, or places which were very meat entered, I lived off of boiled rice and feijão… even on the most remote of islands, I had found my vegan go-to meal! I ate my favourite feijão and vegan accompaniments on the island of Morro de São Paulo, at Papoula Vegetarian Restaurant. The portions were very generous, cheap for the amount which was given, and most importantly, the food was delicious. It was so delicious, that I ate there for 4 days in a row!
You can make your own feijão very easily. Any type of beans will do, although black beans are preferred in Brazil. You can make it as watery or as thick as you like and add any ingredients which suit your tastebuds. Serve with a portion of boiled rice sprinkled with farofa and voila! Vegan Brazilian speciality.
Farofa is traditional Brazilian condiment who’s main ingredient consists of toasted cassava flour (farina de mandioca/farinha de milho). In addition to the flour, the mixture typically contains a variety of herbs and spices as well as dried fruit, fresh apples and nuts. Farofa which is usually sprinkled on top of feijao, poultry dishes or any other main meals, is traditionally freshly made at home, although, it can also be purchased commercially.
This delicacy originates from the pre-colonial period where it was served as an accompaniment to roast meats, birds and fish. Today, it is used alongside almost every dish. Due to it’s quick preparation time and cheap products, it is very popular among the working class households.
Although, recipes vary throughout the country, and are mainly made using melted butter. There is an ‘accidentally vegan version’ which is made by toasting red onions in olive oil then adding the cassava flour, salt, herbs and spices, and toasting together until it reaches a golden brown colour. During my time in Brazil, I had the pleasure of eating homemade farofa with boiled rice and vegetable dishes.
Tapioca is a starch which comes from cassava root flour. Cassava is a vegetable which originates from Northern Brazil but since, has spread across South America and Africa. It can be mashed, fried, boiled into soups and stews and is also used to make tapioca. Brazilian tapioca has as a white, chewy omelette-like appearance and doesn’t have a specific taste. That’s where YOU come in and go crazy with a palette of flavours.
My host mum in Recife taught be how to make this delicacy and it is the most simple meal i’ve ever come across. A few spoonfuls of the flour is sieved to break down the hard lumps. Meanwhile, a small pan is placed to heat without anything added to it. The flour is then spooned into the hot pat until the base is covered. Instantly you will see the starch forming and begin to look like a grainy pancake. A few minutes on the heat, one half is folded over and your tapioca is now ready to serve. It really is that simple. Due to it’s low calorie but high carbohdrate levels, tapioca is used by dieting Brazilians as a replacement for bread.
It is normally eaten for breakfast or lunch, sweet or savoury. The sweet flavours tend to be combined with hot banana, cinnamon, chocolate, dried coconut and condensed milk. The savoury type contains anything from melted cheese and butter to meats and any other ingredients which you would put into an omelette. The vegan options are simple to make. You can make a plain tapioca and add any sweet or savoury ingredients on the side, such as fresh tomatoes and olive oil or fruit and jams.
Acarajé is without a doubt the most calorific yet the most delicious street food I have tasted during my travels in Brazil. This Bahian snack is made by spooning mushed balls of black beans, palm oil (dede) and onions into deep fat friers filled with even more palm oil, which gives acarajé it’s orange colour. Once fried, the original version it is cut in half and filled with a variety of flavoured prawns. These vary from dried shrimps to mixtures of prawns with a red sauce, cashews and spices. To finish, a mixture of finely chopped tomatoes, cucumber, coriander and olive oil is placed on the top.
The vegan version of acarajé is simple. You can ask just for the entire filling to be the mini salad. Plus, it’s cheaper than the original. Acarajé is best eaten when freshly fried and piping hot. Don’t forget to add a generous dash of chilli sauce to have that extra oomph! Oh, and don’t be surprised if the Brazilians stare at you in shock as they don’t have a very good relationship with spicy food.
Caipirinha is Brazil’s national alcoholic cocktail which is made using cachaça, sugar, lime and ice. Cachaça is a liquor derived from hard sugar canes which can be described as Brazil’s version of rum, meaning that the caipirinha tastes quite like a mojito. The only difference is that rum is normally made from refinery by-products of the sugar cane (such as molasses) whereas cachaça is the result of direct fermentation of the sugar cane juice which is then distilled.
Another variation of the caipirinha is called caipiroska, which is made using vodka instead of cachaça. Along the beaches and especially on the islands, there are huge stands with a wide range of fruits to create your own fruity caipiroska. Super cool. The fruits are blended with the alcohol and ice which results in a slushy-like taste. My favourite is mango and strawberry but the options are endless!
Garapa (also known as guarapa or caldo de cana) is sugarcane juice which is extracted directly from a sugar cane. Sugarcane juice is consumed throughout Brazil but also in other countries where it is grown, these include Southeast Asia, the India’s, Egypt and Latin America. This cane is the main precursor of rum.
In Brazil, sugarcanes are peeled are milled multiple times to obtain the juice which is consumed directly. Ice is added to ‘soften the sweetness’ and served fresh. It goes without saying that the taste is extremely sweet, as you are drinking.. well, pure sugar. At the Sunday food market in Recife, I saw each member of my host family happily sipping on a large glass and naturally wanted to try some for myself. After a few sips I couldn’t drink anymore, but Brazilian’s, they love their sugar and spice and all things nice! How they drink the entire glass is beyond me, but their culture revolves around ‘doces‘ just as much as it does around meats and dairy. Despite it’s intensity, garapa is certainly something I would recommend for all of you with a sweet-tooth to try, it is 100% natural.. plus, how many times will you get the chance to drink from a sugar cane?!
9. FOOD BY THE WEIGHT
Imagine you’re walking around the streets of Brazil, in an ordinary neighbourhood where the possibility of finding a vegan restaurant is lower than your chance of finding a vegetarian one, and you’re very, very hungry. You walk in and out of numerous spots only to find that beans and rice are the only thing you can eat from the menu, and maybe a salad if you’re lucky. But no, you just want something more. Well, that’s when Brazil’s open buffet culture comes in very handy for both vegans and vegetarians alike.
Scattered all over the country, it is very easy to find buffet’s which serve a variety of options from hot meat dishes to vegetable dishes, from salads to grains, from fruits to desserts. Of course, the variety available is always dependant on the location however, there will always be at least a few vegan options which await you. You simply choose however much it is that you want to eat, then the plate is weighed and voila. Easy peas-y.