Food is a central component of the tapestry of Carioca culture, playing an important role in family life and social interactions, and testifying to the historic evolution of the city.
Gastronomic jewels at bars, restaurants and dinner tables represent a rich, experimental and culturally welcoming society. CARPE RIO! uncovers some of the finest cuisine served at restaurants across the city, from affluent neighborhoods to favelas. The history and development of foundational Carioca dishes are picked apart and presented alongside privileged insider know-how and tips.
Origins, Traditions, and Gastronomic Culture
Rio de Janeiro's metropolitan menu is largely a product of the important role that the city played in the history of Brazil, attracting and uniting cultures from the whole country and from the rest of the world.
Rio de Janeiro has been the official capital of the empire and of the republic for centuries, and it has been the de-facto economic and cultural capital of Brazil for most of its existence. As such, the city hosted politicians, diplomats, and royalties each bringing along different tastes and gastronomic desires, influencing the local cuisine.
Similarly, a result of trade Rio has welcomed a constant inflow of merchants, immigrants, politicians, and voyagers from everywhere in the world - today, gastronomy in Rio is the result of their respective contributions.
Along with these influences, modern Carioca cuisine also incorporates indigenous seasonings and recipes, mixed in with both ancient African preparations and traditional Portuguese culinary traditions. The result is the betterment of conventional recipes and the creation of a wide variety of new and unique dishes, with a strong European influence.
Indigenous influence contributed many fruits, seeds, and nuts such as the cashew, cassava, taro, tamarind, cherry, palm, jaboticaba, jambo, and the sapodilla. Africans were in charge of cooking in colonial Brazil, and they introduced beans, the most typical national dishes, cayenne, olive oil-palm, the dried shrimp, yams, okra, and various herbs used for flavouring - some of these original african recipes are still prepared during important local commemorations, such as Zumbi dos Palmares day.
Carioca gastronomy owes to Portugal most of its basic European recipes for meat and seafood dishes, salads, soups, desserts, and dry sweets - the Portuguese strongly promoted the consumption of wheat and rice with beef, lamb, pork, fish, soups, fruits, and vegetables.
Over the course of the city's 450 years of existence, Rio's residents have developed a wonderful culinary flare, incorporating influences, tastes and textures from Africa and Europe, such as feijoada, cod and many delicious dishes from Northeastearn Brazil, adapting them to Indigenous cooking and ingredients such as manioc and coconut. In more recent years, a diverse range of international culinary cultures have taken root, such as Japanese sushi, Mexican empanadas and the French crêpe.
From charming and cheerful bars called 'botecos' selling comfort food to high-end experimental cuisine, traditional Brazilian plates to exotic international cuisine, there are restaurants across the city to suit every mood and palate.
Globalization, and the recent Brazilian economic boom have further enriched foreign culinary influences, and while maintaining its originality, Carioca gastronomy has now significantly expanded to include some remarkably sophisticated recipes. Today's gastronomy has reached such importance in Rio to result in the creation of a variety of yearly culinary festivals and competitions such as the Rio's Festival Gastronomico, the Degusta Rio, and the hosting of the worlds' Pasta Congress.
Brazilian cuisine is now one of the richest in the world, and while typical regional dishes can vary greatly throughout Brazilian territory, in Rio de Janeiro feijoada stands out, along with the 'leão veloso' shrimp soup.
Feijoada, Brazil's national dish reached the status of most typical national dish and it is the most widely known outside of Brazil and a symbol of Brazilian cuisine.
There are four main types of restaurants in Rio de Janeiro - rodizios, churrascarias, kilos, and 'a-la-carte'. Given any type of food, each type of restaurant offers a unique take and experience in the way dishes are served and enjoyed.
Rodizios are extremely popular establishments where a fixed price is charged and unlimited courses are served at the table with no additional charges - drinks, coffee, and desserts are usually charged separately. Rodizios are truly loved in Rio, and even regular restaurants may convert to rodizios for the week-end: in fact, several well established high-end restaurants now offer rodizios during lunch hours.
Typical rodizio offerings include pizza, appetizers, pasta, and meat. In touristy areas such as Ipanema and Copacabana rodizios of sushi are now increasingly available. Rodizios can range from very affordable and simple diners to very expensive and posh restaurants.
Churrascarias are a type of rodizio, but they specialize in serving meat and because of their extreme popularity are normally classified is a class of their own - in these restaurants waiters continuously come to the tables and slice different types of meat directly into the customers' plates. A red and green paper signal is given to the clients to signal the waiters to either keep or stop coming.
Churrascarias also offer a buffet table where clients can self-serve various additional side dishes such as vegetables, pastas, risottos, breads, cheeses, cold cuts, soups, and condiments. High-end churrascarias also include fish and sushi on the buffet table - for vegans, it is possible to accompany their meat-loving friends and enjoy a full meat-free meal just with the side dishes. High-end churrascarias serve special meats, such as rabbit and ostrich at no extra charge, but these dishes may not be on the menu and have to be specifically asked for - drinks, coffee, and desserts are never included in the fixed price and are generally expensive compared to the price of the courses.
Kilos are restaurants where clients serve themselves at a main table and then weigh their plates and get billed accordingly by weight. Kilos often offer a 'fixo' rate, which allows for unlimited servings at a fixed price - normally this rate is not plainly visible or advertised and must be inquired about. Most kilos have a basic churrascaria as well, offering a nice variety of meats. These cuts are usually located separately from the main food tables, and meats are cut and prepared to order.
High-end kilos also offer sushi as part of the buffet - additionally, they can offer sashimi of salmon or tuna, but these must be specifically asked for and are weighted on a separate dish, and are billed at a higher rate.
A-la-carte are the typical restaurants where dishes are ordered from a fixed menu - there is a great variety of restaurants a-la-carte in Rio, serving dishes ranging from typical Brazilian to contemporary Asian, Fusion, Ethnic, and Vegan.
The culturally diverse and imaginative 'a-la-carte' restaurants that line the streets of the city are another excellent example of local creativity. Japanese food arrived with the large influx of Japanese immigrants in the early 20th Century and his since become a trendy option amongst Cariocas.
French cuisine, in all its forms and much of its sophistication, has also been embraced with arms wide open by the people of Rio de Janeiro. Crêpe restaurants abound, And gourmet Parisian cuisine can be found in eateries in Leblon and Copacabana.
Many restaurants offer dishes and flavours from around Brazil, as well as wider South America, serving delightful Peruvian food of Inca origin. Rio de Janeiro has adopted other culinary trends over the years, with a wide range of stylish and inventive vegetarian and vegan restaurants.
In full appreciation of Cariocas' great affinity and affection for food and music, bars and restaurants in Rio commonly intertwine the two, providing customers with live musical performances as they eat. Many of the bars and clubs that line the streets of neighbourhoods such as Lapa offer mesmerising samba shows with traditional menus alongside.
In Rio de Janeiro, the rich culinary cultures of the world are fused together with a playful twist, creating a uniquely diverse and imaginative Carioca menu.
Called 'Feijoada,' The Brazilian national dish is a black bean stew, containing up to thirteen varieties of pork and sausage cuts, as well as optional vegetables. Many historians believe it derives from stews consumed in Southern Europe at the time of Portuguese colonization. The beans and meat, stewed for hours, are rich, creamy and unique and restaurants across the city compete to produce the very finest specimen of this Brazilian delicacy.
The famous Brazilian barbecue, called 'churrasco' was born in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, when a pioneering cattle farmer decided to grill meat on wooden skewers over a fire, seasoned exclusively by coarse salt. While barbeques are often hosted in homes, grilled meat restaurants have truly earned Rio its fame. The 'rodízio' (rotation) system is what lends Churrascarias their unique character and appeal – a continual stream of succulent meat cuts are brought to customers' tables and sliced before their eyes, accompanied by a vast array of side dishes, salads, pastries, and sushi.
The Portuguese first introduced chickens to Brazil in the early 20th Century and early aviculture in the country was known as 'frango caipira', meaning 'rustic chicken'. Today, Brazil is one of the largest exporteres of chicken meat in the world. All across Rio, one can find evidence that Cariocas are well-versed chicken chefs and consumers, and have perfected the art of fillings, as well as expertly grilled cuts. Walking past bars and shops, residents and visitors are regularly greeted by the rich and tantalising smell of spit-roasted whole chickens.
Rio de Janeiro has a long fishing history, and at one time held the title of highest fishing yield of all states. 'Bacalhau', or Cod, is a very popular fish in Brazil , and the word now refers to a delicately honed national dish, famously enjoyed at Christmas. Bacalhau was introduced to Brazil by the Portuguese court in the early 19th Century.
An impressive number of seafood meals come from the Northeast of Brazil. 'Moqueca de Peixe,' a fish stew that originates from indigenous tribes in Bahia, is traditionally cooked in a clay pot, with coconut milk, palm oil and a choice selection of fish. 'Acarajé' is a wonderfully unique African-Brazilian dish made of traditional black-eyed beans, onion, salt and palm oil, first recorded in Bahia in 1916. The ingredients are rolled into a ball, somewhat like a falafel, which is then cut in half and served with a filling of pigweed, steamed shrimp, pepper and salad.
Cariocas adore their pastries, sweets and snacks, which can be found in almost every bar, restaurant and home in the city. They are eaten at the tables of just about everyone, from small shops at the top of favelas, to sophisticated champagne dinners in posh district Leblon. One of the most beloved of the Brazilian savoury pastries is the 'coxinha', a tear-drop shaped, chicken-filled, soft pastry, coated in bread-crumbs, said to have originated from São Paulo in the late 19th Century. Side by side with the coxinha, one can always find a wide assortment of 'Pasteis', or pastries. These are filled with both traditional and contemporary fillings, including most commonly cheese, ham, minced meat and prawn.
'Brigadeiro' is the archetypal Brazilian sweet – the decadent guest at every party and the popular treat in Cariocas' cupboards. It is a soft and indulgent truffle formed of condensed milk, chocolate and butter, coated in sprinkles. The name means, 'brigadier', as a tribute to Brigadier Eduardo Gomes who ran for President of the Republic in 1946. Sweet and savoury snacks are in many ways the staple of the Brazil ian diet, and something that Cariocas feel great pride about.
Anyone visiting Rio de Janeiro will be greeted by a tantalizing 'caipirinha' - the celebrated Brazilian cocktail made of lemon, crushed ice, sugar and 'cachaça,' a sugarcane spirit. There are also delicious twists on the classic, using vodka instead of cachaça and passion fruit, kiwi or mango instead of lemon.
Brazil's fruit offerings are some of the sweetest and most succulent the world over. Called 'sucos', there is a huge variety of freshly made fruit juices on offer in Rio: from the traditional orange and apple, to the more tropical options of guava, papaya, mango and jackfruit. Fruit juices are an extremely popular component of Carioca diet and lifestyle. Coconut water is the darling of Rio's residents, and can be bought from any coastal kiosk or street vendor.
'Açaí' is a celebrated tropical 'super-food' which can be consumed in a number of different forms, including juices, smoothies and sorbets – often sprinkled with sweet and crunchy granola, banana, strawberries and honey.
No matter the food or the occasion, beer has been a landmark drink in Rio for a long time, where the first records of its consumption date back to the 17th Century. Nowadays, at all big social events, street parties and buzzing squares, street vendors sell cans and bottles from big, portable ice boxes and locals stands. Traditionally, as important as the make of the beer, so is its temperaure: the colder the better!