Fusing together several culinary traditions — but mainly the indigenous, west African, and Portuguese ones — Brazilian food culture is colorful, diverse, and really tantalizing.
It’s also a lot about self-indulgence and sharing, which makes it easier for a meal to be turned into a full-blown party.
Today, I’ll guide you through the 101 of my home country’s cuisine so you’ll have one more reason to visit asap.
Brazilian food culture basics
1. Blame it on the “three races”.
Three groups of people, which historically were called the three races that formed the bulk of Brazil’s population, were responsible for the strongest Brazilian food influences: the indigenous nations, the Portuguese settlers, and the West Africans that were brought over against their will.
Then, between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s, Brazil went on to receive the largest influx of Italian, Japanese, and Christian Arab immigrants on Earth. These communities contributed enormously to Brazilian cuisine as we know it.
Recently, a new immigration wave from neighboring South America and nations like the DRC, Angola, Syria, and Haiti, have continued to transform Brazilian cuisine.
2. Less is a bore.
Food in Brazil is about abundance to the point subtleness and balance are sometimes done without.
A clear example is the sheer amount of toppings you may find on pizza in Brazil, which in some cases prevents you from savoring the crust.
This is somewhat changing as tastes are getting more refined by the day, yet it’s still an essential feature of Brazilian eating culture.
Also read: Brazilian Food Facts: Favorite Dishes, Eating Habits and More
3. There’s no such thing as Brazilian cuisine.
Fine, maybe that’s an overstatement. There are indeed general trends that you’ll learn more about in the following sections.
That said, Brazil accounts for almost half of South America’s landmass. Distances are so immense that folks who’ve never traveled to other parts of the country often have never heard about the food specialties of other regions.
Check out points 19 to 23 for a closer look at Brazil’s regional cuisines.
4. Lunch is a big deal.
While Brazilians don’t stop for lunch for as long as Spaniards or Italians, we do like to eat a full meal like the one you see above.
That usually happens between 12 and 2 p.m. Then most people will have a snack by mid-afternoon and dinner between 7 and 9 p.m.
Occasionally folks will be more flexible with dinner and have a sandwich or soup instead. Lunch, however, is non-negotiable.
Brazilian food staples and eating habits
5. Bread rolls dominate breakfast.
Breakfast in Brazil is salty like in the U.S. and most of Europe, yet it’s not as rich in fat. We’ll typically have a grilled bread roll with either black coffee or milk coffee.
Cheese and ham sandwiches and eggs are common as well, but bacon for example is considered too greasy for mornings.
6. Beef is king.
Brazil is the leading exporter of beef and the second biggest producer after the U.S. It’s no wonder almost every Brazilian lunch or dinner features it (though chicken and fish are popular too).
The country is also renowned for its barbecue culture, which includes unique cuts like picanha (i.e. a muscle of the back plus its fat cap). Next time you hit a Brazilian steakhouse, don’t miss out on it!
7. Rice and beans run in our blood.
The no. 1 Brazilian staple food is the rice and beans combo. Rice is normally fluffy and not sticky, while beans are stewy in a way that the two things flawlessly meld together on the plate.
As with almost everything else, we’ll cook beans from scratch. So to avoid standing by the stovetop for hours, virtually all Brazilian households have a pressure cooker.
8. Fresh fruit is affordable and delicious.
The world of Brazilian fruit is exuberant and diverse and includes many kinds of fruit you’ve never heard of.
You can get eye-popping fruit from street vendors at any busy street corner. Alternatively, check out the juice shops that dot all the major cities and make your own unusual combination.
On top of that, most restaurants will have between a couple and a handful of fresh juice options for you to sip on alongside your meal.
9. Cassava and corn are pretty big too.
Cassava originated in central Brazil and was domesticated within its modern boundaries some 12,000 years ago.
It formed the basis of the indigenous diet in the pre-colonial era and to this very day is widely consumed boiled, deep-fried, and as an ingredient in both savory dishes and desserts.
Corn, while not as ubiquitous as in countries like Mexico or Venezuela, is made into pamonha (Brazilian tamales), angu (a salty porridge), cornbread, or eaten on the cob.
What Brazilians treat themselves to
10. Brazilians are obsessed with coffee.
There’s no bad time for coffee in Brazil; not even after dinner. Brazilians like their coffee short and strong, though milk coffee is another favorite in the morning.
American coffee has been gaining ground in large cities in the last 15 years thanks to Starbucks, but a mugful of watered-down coffee is something hardly any Brazilians will drink at home.
11. June food is Brazil’s best-hidden secret.
In June, Brazilians honor rural culture and the June saints St. Anthony, St. John, and St. Peter in the so-called festa junina, a popular celebration featuring square dancing, bonfires, and tons of amazing food.
Cassava, corn, and peanuts are the stars here and are used to make cakes, candies, and countless other delicacies.
Now, festa junina increasingly extends well into July and sometimes as late as August, because why not?
12. Finger foods are the bomb.
Brazilian street food culture is serious stuff; Brazilians have come up with dozens of baked and fried specialties to placate their cravings.
Some, like cassava starch crackers (biscoito de polvilho), add the perfect amount of crunchiness to a day at the beach. Others like our deep-fried empanadas (pastel) go hand in hand with an ice-cold beer with the crew.
From lunchtime, street vendors take over the streets of cities across the country and fill the air with the irresistible aroma of Brazilian snacks.
13. Brazilians love to “upgrade” foreign dishes.
While the creators of each of these recipes may say Brazilians have vandalized or degraded them, we still stand by our versions.
- Churros — The Spanish treat is usually stuffed with dulce de leche or chocolate spread and sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. There are also extreme versions that are topped with icing like an éclair.
- Hot dogs — The all-American snack features a tomato broth and pretty much anything you may want to top it with, from green peas to canned corn and even mashed potatoes and quail eggs.
- Pizza — The keyword here is “custom-made”. Pizzerias normally bake three to four sizes of pizza, let you pick different toppings for each half of it, offer a few sweet options, and never skimp on the cheese.
- Sushi — Most famously, Brazilians love adding cream cheese and deep-frying makimono. As odd as that may sound, the concoctions have inspired innovative chefs to open Japanese-Brazilian fusion restaurants in places like Milan and Miami.
14. Desserts are supposed to be sweeeet.
Many desserts in Brazil are made with either condensed milk, egg yolks, or dulce de leche (a caramelized milk spread).
Fruit is commonly used as well, but in any case desserts — like brigadeiro, our cocoa powder, and condensed milk truffles pictured above — are typically much sweeter than the majority of Europeans or Asians would enjoy.
If you fear Brazilian desserts might be a little sickening for your tastebuds, try passion fruit pie or mousse and you’ll be in for a deliciously tart treat.
15. Christmas Eve is more lavish than Christmas.
This is actually a tradition Brazilians share with the rest of Latin America and several European nations. Besides turkey, popular main dishes for Christmas Eve include ham, codfish, and chicken.
Usually, the evening starts with appetizers like codfish fritters, dried fruit, and panettone so everyone can endure till 10 p.m. or as late as midnight to eat the Christmas supper. That’s when kids are allowed to open their gifts too.
On Christmas Day, most families will eat leftovers from the night before, which is something Brazilians call enterro dos ossos (literally “burial of the bones”).
Eating out in Brazil
16. There are two unique types of restaurants in Brazil.
Lunchtime in large cities across Brazil is dominated by the “kilo” restaurants, where you pick whatever you want from a buffet and pay by the weight of your plate.
Given Brazilians love to mix different dishes on a single plate, that’s a really convenient and affordable system.
The other uniquely Brazilian style is the famed rodízio, which is an all-you-can-eat where instead of a buffet you have waiters regularly bringing food to your table.
Brazilian rodízio-style steakhouses have become renowned abroad, yet in Brazil, the system is also used for pizza, sushi, pasta, soup, and even appetizers.
17. Tipping is “mandatory”.
I say “mandatory” because, in the end, it’s totally up to customers to tip or not. Still, a 10% (or, in a few cases, 12%) service fee is automatically added to the check at Brazilian restaurants (plus bars and entertainment venues offering table service).
Most Brazilians will choose to pay the fee even when the service has been of middling quality. Not paying it is normally restricted to extreme situations.
18. Servings are typically quite generous.
This, of course, depends on the type of restaurant we’re talking about, as fancier places tend to be more in line with international portions.
But if you go to a mildly affordable restaurant in Brazil, always ask how many people the dishes are meant for. Restaurants often have 2- or 3-person serving sizes. We’ve inherited that from the Portuguese culinary tradition.
When two people order an appetizer before the entree, it’s not uncommon to share a dish that serves one person either.
Brazilian food culture region breakdown
19. In the North, the Amazon reigns supreme.
As such, indigenous influence is very strong in the region. Freshwater fish, Amazonian fruit like açaí and cupuaçu, as well as leafy vegetables like jambu — which triggers a weird numbness in the mouth — are among the key ingredients.
Since it prizes fresh ingredients and boiled and slow-cooked food, Northern cuisine is one of the healthiest in Brazil.
20. The Northeast is all about the sun and the sea.
The Brazilian Northeast is made up of nine states. As a consequence, the local cuisine varies widely. Overall, though, the food there is more on the heartier side.
Both the Northeast’s stunning coast and its arid countryside receive a great deal of sunlight year-round, which would call for lighter dishes.
Yet deep-fried cassava, beef jerky, aged cheese, and all sorts of cornmeal recipes feature prominently. To the region’s credit, seafood is also one of their specialties. Don’t miss out on crab legs and fish stews when you visit.
21. The West is where cattle country meets the savanna.
Central Brazil is an area of massive expanses where the rainforest transitions into a savanna-like ecosystem. What’s more, it’s home to the vastest wetland on Earth, which sadly is slowly giving way to cattle farming.
Food-wise, beef is unsurprisingly one of the top specialties in the region. But the influence from neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay is remarkable as well, so locals love drinking mate for example.
22. The Southeast is the land of fusion.
The Southeast is where São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro, the three most populous Brazilian states, are located.
A melting pot through and through, the area received one of the largest influxes of enslaved people on the planet and welcomed millions of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian immigrants between the 19th and 20th centuries.
It’s also the birthplace of beloved dishes like feijoada, snacks like coxinha and pão de queijo, and is home to the highest-rated restaurants in the country too.
23. The South was built by immigrants.
Cattle farming is a major activity in the South too. Consequently, the area is famous for its top-notch barbecue.
But the coldest region in the country is the one with the biggest Italian and German diasporas as well, which still reflects in its cuisine.
It shouldn’t come as a shock, then, that fine cheeses and world-class wines are produced in the South of Brazil.
Feeling inspired by this Brazilian food culture tasting menu? There’s no shortage of eye-popping fruit, binge-worthy snacks, hearty dishes, and decadent desserts to fall in love with.
Make sure you write down all your favorite delicacies so you won’t miss any when you visit Rio, São Paulo, or the Northeastern coast!