The roots of Brazil’s diverse cuisine stretch across three continents. Indigenous South American fruits and spices, African flavors, and European recipes have all contributed to the nation’s complex food heritage.
While it has a few national dishes like moqueca and feijoada, Brazil has a startling variety of regional specialties, from the magnificent river fish in Amazonia to the West African-influenced coconut milk dishes of the northeast. Describing the best traditional Brazilian meal depends largely on where you happen to be standing in the country.
Get local insight on destinations all over the world with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox.
Given Brazil’s enormous coastline, seafood plays a pivotal role. The country’s tropical location is also important to its cuisine, with a dizzying variety of unique fruits often incorporated into restaurant menus.
Food-focused travel in Brazil is an endlessly rewarding experience. Here’s what to eat and drink on your trip.
Taste moqueca, one of Brazil’s most famous dishes, in Bahia © Flavia Novais / Getty Images
Feast on Afro-Brazilian cuisine in Bahia
The northeastern region of Bahia has a deep connection to Africa, which you can both hear (in the rhythm-centric drum corps in the streets of Salvador) and taste, thanks to the liberal use of coconut milk in fish stews, spicy malagueta peppers and dendê (palm oil).
One of Brazil’s most popular dishes comes from Bahia. Moqueca is a delicious seafood stew made with tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers and the signature coconut milk, which is then served over rice.
Bobó de camarão is a slight variation of moqueca that features manioc (cassava) along with coconut milk and shrimp. It is not unlike the West African dish ipetê. Bahia has plenty of great street food as well, including the classic acarajé, a fritter made of mashed black-eyed beans topped with a spicy paste made of crushed cashews, palm oil and dried shrimp. You can find it on the streets of Salvador as well as in many markets, including the Hippie Fair in Rio de Janeiro.
Where to try it: At many Brazilian restaurants, dishes are meant to be shared, which means you won’t be able to try many different recipes. Salvador’s Restaurante do SENAC (part of an acclaimed culinary school) spreads an outstanding buffet with all of the great Bahian dishes on hand.
Quench your thirst with coconut water after a day at the beach
Wherever you roam on Brazil’s 7242km (4500-mile) coastline, you’re probably not far from liquid refreshment. When the temperature soars, head to a beach kiosk or a mobile vendor and order an água de coco (coconut water). The handy attendant will whip out a machete, crack an opening in the top of the coconut, and plunge in a straw. The refreshing drink is loaded with electrolytes, helping you to stay amply hydrated. Be sure to order it bem gelado (well chilled).
Where to try it: Stroll the sands or get active on a run or bike ride along the seaside promenade of Rio’s Copacabana Beach. Along the way, you’ll pass plenty of places selling ice-cold água de coco.
Celebrate your trip to Brazil with a caipirinha © AJ_Watt / Getty Images
Start off the night with a caipirinha
The unofficial national drink of Brazil is the caipirinha, a cocktail made of cachaça (high-proof sugarcane alcohol), crushed lime, sugar and ice. Most bartenders make them smooth and sweet, so be mindful of their hidden potency. You can find them anywhere in the country, and they’re a prominent ingredient at any lively gathering. Caipirinhas lend themselves to invention, with variations like the caipirosca (made with vodka rather than cachaça) and the capisake (starring sake). You can also replace lime with another muddled fruit like pineapple, mango, kiwi or the cherry-like pitanga.
Where to try it: Any bar and many beach kiosks serve up satisfying caipirinhas. Beach resort towns also have great outdoor options. By night on Segunda Praia on the island of Morro de São Paulo, dexterous mixmasters whip up a variety of caipirinhas along the sands, with fresh fruit on display advertising the menu options.
Eat your way around the globe in São Paulo
São Paulo, Brazil’s largest metropolis, is a cultural melting pot with people from every corner of the globe. It has the largest community of people of Japanese descent outside of Japan, the largest population of Italian descendants outside of Italy and a significant community of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. With an astonishing array of restaurants, the city has countless temptations when it comes to planning a meal. You can eat quite well here whether you’re in the mood for Sicilian-style pizza, stuffed grape leaves or French pastries.
Where to try it: Even if you have excellent pizzerias at home, don’t leave São Paulo without a visit to Speranza, an institution in the Italian neighborhood of Bixiga since the 1950s.
Discover the complex flavors of the Amazon
The towns and cities in Brazil’s vast Amazon area have teeming markets and colorful restaurants where you can explore the culinary riches of this little-known region. Caldeirada is a fish stew not unlike bouillabaisse, and pato no tucupí is a regional favorite made with duck, garlic, lip-tingling jambú leaves, and the juice of manioc roots. River fish like tambaquí and pirarucu are huge, and the filets or even the ribs (costela) are delicacies.
Where to try it: Manaus is both a principal gateway for trips into the rainforest and an impressive city in its own right, with some of the region’s best restaurants. Worth the splurge is the high-end Banzeiro, which has a huge menu of Amazonian specialties, including cocktails with fruits from the forest.
Brazil’s famous feijoada is so filling that you might want to fast beforehand © Igor Alecsander / Getty Images
Set aside a Saturday for feijoada
In many parts of Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro, Saturday is the day for partaking in one of Brazil’s most famous dishes, feijoada. Black beans and slow-cooked pork form the basis of this thick, hearty stew, and it’s served with rice, shredded kale, farofa (fried cassava flour) and orange slices.
The calorie-dense meal packs a punch, and feijoada fans suggest fasting before you partake and most importantly pacing yourself. Many Brazilians can stretch a meal of feijoada (which is nearly always enjoyed at lunchtime) into a two or three-hour experience, particularly if there’s live music on hand.
Where to try it: The atmospheric Bar do Mineiro in Rio’s Santa Teresa district serves a classic feijoada, which draws in the weekend crowds. If you can’t wait until Saturday, the Casa do Feijoada in Ipanema serves the dish every day of the week.
Vegetarians can snack on pão de queijo (cheese bread), fresh fruits and lunchtime buffets in Brazil © Galembeck / Getty Images
Vegetarians and vegans
Brazil has a reputation for being a challenging place for vegetarians and vegans. While it is true that the nation consumes a lot of meat, those on plant-based diets will find plenty of options if they know where to look.
Juice bars are good snack spots, and you can order dozens of different smoothies and tropical fruit juices including açaí (the nutrient-rich Amazonian berry), which you can top with optional ingredients like banana and granola. Pão de queijo (cheese bread) is another widespread treat.
Brazil’s ubiquitous pay-by-weight buffets are excellent lunchtime destinations. Quality and price vary, but in general, you’ll find a good selection of salads, pasta, vegetarian casseroles and black beans (not always meat-free, so be sure to ask).
Brazil has numerous vegetarian and vegan restaurants, and some even serve Brazilian classics like feijoada and moqueca without animal products, so you can see what all the fuss is about.