Cultural Discoveries: A Brazilian Bonanza

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This article originally appeared in the 2012 Brazil Travel Planner. It has been extracted from its original format. To read the full travel planner, visit the digital edition.

Discover the Tastes of Brazil

Brazilian cuisine is not a singular tradition, but rather a conglomeration of regional cuisines, and each a hybrid of ethnic dishes adapted to local conditions. Portions are big; ingredients are fresh and dishes are surprisingly not spicy. Of course, as in the rest of the world, Brazil has enjoyed its own brand of culinary renaissance—a.k.a. pan-Brazilian fusion—in rediscovering Amazonian fruits of the north, grass-fed beef from the south, fish from the mighty Amazon, and marrying them with Cordon Bleu techniques and finesse into exquisite dishes. And when off on a regional food tour, no matter where you are, you’ll be sipping the national drink: caipirinha, made with crushed lime, sugar, ice and cachaca (a high-proof sugarcane alcohol).

In Rio & Sao Paulo: If Rio and Sao Paulo lack a distinctive cuisine of their own, these cosmopolitan cities have sophisticated dining scenes and a stage full of ristorantes with world-class kitchens ruled over by innovative chefs who fashion both traditional and contemporary cuisines. And there is a certain rivalry between the two towns in the preparation of Brazil’s classic dish: feijoada, a stew of beans with beef and pork.

In Bahia: With its rich African legacy, Bahian food is legendary throughout Brazil, and Salvador is its culinary capital. The main ingredients include coconut milk, cilantro, dried shrimp, crushed cashews, hot peppers and limes. Signature dishes include moqueca, an aromatic fish or seafood stew cooked in palm oil and coconut milk. Look forward to Salvador street-snacking on acrajes, crunchy bean fitters stuffed with different fillings.

In Minas Gerais: There are wonderful restaurants in Ouro Preto and Tiradentes, serving up robust and flavorful pork and chicken dishes, tutu a mineiro (a bean puree), creamy white cheese and delicious desserts made from local Cerrado fruits.

In Rio Grande do Sul: It was the gaucho cowboys who popularized the art of churrasco—rubbing chunks of beef with rock salt and slow-grilling them over charcoal. While waiting for the meat to cook, they sipped chimarrão, a pungent brew made from the mate plant. In parts of the south, German and Italian food rule the day, and Rio Grande do Sul loves its local wine, cultivated with Italian grapes.

In the Amazon: The cuisine is influenced by the region’s native Tupi people, who live largely on manioc, freshwater fish, yams, beans and exotic fruit. Caldeirada is a popular fish stew, and pato no tucupi is a regional favorite made with duck. Jacare (caiman meat) is another specialty.

Discover Shopping Treasures

Tops in retail are gold, diamonds and gemstones, making them good buys throughout Brazil, although many say that the best value is found at the source in Minas Gerais. Actually stores of major jewelers, from H. Stern to Amsterdam Sauer, are sightseeing attractions of their own in Rio.

For the quintessential purchase in Brazil, buy beachwear—it’s matchless. And different regions of Brazil are celebrated for their handicrafts: clay and soapstone carvings, tiles and other ceramic work, textiles and hammocks from the northeast—musical instruments (strings and percussion) in particular from Bahia; lace from Ceara; and leather work and exotically styled pottery from Amazonia. While hotel gift shops are often the place to find high-end and interesting crafts, shopping is just plain fun in local markets. Some of the best-known are in:

Manaus: The Mercado Adolpho Lisboa, held daily in the lovely iron-and-glass market hall, is the place to go (early) to see the exotic fish of the Amazon River, as well as lush fruits and vegetable. Indigenous handicrafts here are reasonably priced.

Rio de Janeiro: While there is no shortage of excellent shopping malls and boutiques, for extra fun in browsing and buying (jewelry and leather accessories in particular) it’s the Sunday Hippie Market in Ipanema—held rain or shine. And evenings—6 p.m. to 1 a.m.—the Feirarte market is open on Copacabana.

Salvador: To get a feel for northeast craft—weavings, hammocks, furniture, woodcarvings and ceramics—go to the Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Maua, a government center that promotes and supports regional artists. (Future artists occupy workshops on the third floor.) The multi-floor Mercado Modelo is an emporium of just about everything Bahia offers in arts, crafts and souvenirs.

Sao Paulo: The Antiques Fair every Sunday in the open space beneath the MASP museum building on Avenida Paulista. Also on Sunday, the enormous Japanese Market displays an excellent and inexpensive selection of foods, arts and crafts.