In Brazil, rice, beans and yellow toasted manioc flour (farofa) made daily appearances on our dining tables. But while the carbohydrates remained constant throughout our 2-week stay, we were treated to a roster of regional specialties as we moved from region to region. There was hardly a dull moment deciphering the Portuguese menu and anticipating the new bites we would try.
In the state of Maranhao, we were exposed to the local cassava flour crepe called tapioca, traditionally found in the Northeastern states. Made solely with cassava flour (sans water, eggs and other additives) in a pan over open fire, the crepe is chewy and bland on its own, but like French crepes, a good vehicle for its fillings. We first tried our first tapioca (with cheese and butter) at the insistence of a fellow tourist, and the hot and gooey crepe was just what we needed to ward off post-swimming and hiking hunger while waiting to cross the river back to Bairreirinhas. Tapioca also featured at the breakfast buffet, and we ate those sweet, slathered with local spreads such as guava jam and dulce do leche.
Maranhao is a coastal state, so seafood was inevitably the highlight of our meals there. Serendipitously, our hotel in Sao Luis was right next to the local Alliance Francaise, so we went in to say hi and also to collate restaurant data. We left not just with an address (the highly praised Cabana do Sol) but also with a post-it note, on it a list of what to order. Cabana do Sol is recognized as one of the best and most famous dining establishments in Sao Luis, specializing in regional Maranhenses cuisine. Banking on their popularity, the owners built a sprawling restaurant staffed with an army of waiters and a menu that is both expansive and expensive (or so we thought until we were promptly fleeced in Caburé). We started with spectacular deep-fried beef pasteis, even better with a dab of spicy pepper jelly, and then stared down our order of peixe cam colho de camarao (fish in shrimp sauce), a single portion big enough to feed 3 or even 4. The fried white fish was meaty and firm, while the shrimp, both fresh and dried, packed the sauce with deep umami flavors.
Next we hit Salvador. Ask any Soterpolitano on the street, and they will tell you to try their state dish, Moqueca. A seafood stew with a variety of seafood combinations, the dish reflects the sensibilities of 2 dominant cultures in Salvador: Amerindian coconut, and African dende (palm) oil. The locals we talked to and websites we trawled suggested Ki-Mukeka and Yemanja as places with superlative moqueca. Regretfully, those restaurants were too far-flung from where we were, so we compromised by ordering moqueca at a beachside restaurant on the beach of Guarajuba. I found the thin stew redolent with the fragrance of coconut milk and tinted red by dende oil to have a slight resemblance to similarly aromatic Southeast Asian curries. Good sopped up with rice, though not a dish I am likely to seek out next time.
Dende oil is featured in another Salvadoran dish, a local snack called acaraje. Acaraje is basically a bean patty that has been deep-fried in the dark palm oil, and then stuffed with a variety of fillings, including starchy mashed vatapa, some greens and small shrimps. Best served piping hot by a smiling Baiana. Ours wasn’t quite hot enough, and the textures were too strange even for me. But quite an experience nonetheless, when eaten on Praca de Se on a Tuesday evening alongside a plate of street barbecue, right before a night of pulsating music on the streets of Pelourinho.
We tried yet another Northeastern speciality, carne do sol, at the behest of an extremely friendly Soterpolitano in a random botequim in Barra, Salvador. Known as beef jerky in other parts of the world, the meat is heavily salted and sun-dried, but the short drying period (1-2 days) makes the meat much less dry and chewy than other forms of jerky. Extremely salty on its own, we ate it in the form of an Escondidinho, very starchy and creamy bowl of mashed manioc studded with cubes of the savory meat, like a very good though carb-heavy shepherd’s pie. So heavy that a small crock was all the two of us could handle.
We had still more beef in Parana, the next state that we visited. The traditional culinary highlight is the very rustic barreado, a simple beef stew served in an earthern crockpot. In fact, it is so rustic that it has become difficult to find it in the metropolis of Curitiba, and we had to take a very long and scenic train ride through the Atlantic rainforest to restaurant Casarao in the tourist town of Morretes for a taste of the real deal. Cooked with less than 10 ingredients, all easily found in a western larder, the key to a good barreado is time for the meat to slowly disintegrate into soft shreds. Parana appears to be a banana producing state, so besides sampling banana candy and the fruit-infused cachaca, the traditional way of eating barreado also involves dropping slices of fresh banana into the stew along with some farofa to form an ultra flavorful mush, one that both babies and grandmas will love. The fried fish from local rivers were also a surprise and a respite from the heavy beef stew.
At the end of our sojourn in Brazil, we tried more than half a dozen types of regional dishes unique to their place of origin. It’s difficult to pick favorites, so our advice is to taste with an open mind, and enjoy what Brazilian cuisine has to offer!