If travel is an experience for all the senses, then trying out a country’s cuisine can also achieve the same thing. From seeing and touching the fresh ingredients of a meal, listening to the sizzle of an ingredient as it is being cooked, smelling a dish’s aroma as it is being prepared, and finally savoring its taste – a food tour can provide a gastronomic delight to all the senses.
Brazilian cuisine has strong European and African influences and is a melting pot of different flavors, thanks to its mix of native and immigrant populations and the sheer size of the country. Our group of 10 traveling friends felt that the best way to become oriented with the cuisine was to do a walking food tour with Eat Rio, which has an awesome website that not only details its tours but also offers a lot of tips on where to stay, what to do and where to eat in Rio de Janeiro.
We signed up for a six-hour food tour that covered four neighborhoods. The length of the tour may sound daunting but time flew by and we were also able to find out more about Rio and see a few attractions between eating. Our guide, Felippe, met us and promptly took us to a street market, where we rubbed shoulders with the locals who were buying their fresh produce for the day.
At the street market, we first walked over to a stall that was showing the fairly laborious process of extracting tapioca, a starch from the cassava root. This was then made into a fine flour that was used to make beiju de tapioca – hot tapioca pancakes topped with cheese and oregano – which everyone devoured quickly.
Stepping through the market, what struck me immediately is that Brazil is absolutely blessed to have such a huge list of fruits and vegetables – with quite a few being completely foreign to me. I drooled over the rows of colorful fruit including papayas, oranges, pineapples, and guavas. My mouth watered while gazing upon dozens of vegetables, including cassavas and yams. And I jumped behind a fishmonger’s stall to get a picture with them after seeing them taking a photo of our group!
Once we got to the end of the street market, Felippe set up a makeshift stand to tell us more about the foods we’d seen as well as let us try a ton of fresh fruits. We took sips of caldo de cana (sugarcane juice, which we tried with and without lime). Most of us felt that the inclusion of lime made the drink better tasting and highlighted the sugar cane taste better.
We also tried little red berries called acerola that have over 30 times more vitamin C than an orange of the same quantity, siriguela (a small yellow fruit with a thick skin and a large stone), caqui (a persimmon, although the fruit we tried was redder in color and a bit sweeter), abacate (avocado) and a crowd favorite, coco (coconut). A funny memory was sampling two types of mangoes (manga palmer, a large mango and manga espada, a small yellow-green mango that was sweeter). The manga espada was so stringy though that everyone had to floss their teeth immediately afterward – quite a sight for people passing by to see a group of tourists using dental floss next to the street market!
Afterward, we hailed cabs to Nova Capela, one of the oldest restaurants in Rio and with an old-school Portugal decor. As a former Portuguese colony, there are many Brazilian dishes adapted from Portugal, including bolinhos de bacalhau (salt cod and potato croquettes). What’s interesting though is that codfish cannot be found anywhere in Brazil but it is a very common meal to eat, so Brazil has to import this fish heavily across the country. We washed this down with a refreshing dose of suco de abacaxi com hortelã (pineapple juice with mint) and were then off to our next destination – a walk through the neighborhood of Lapa.
Lapa is a happening neighborhood for nightlife, but during the day under the sweltering summer sun, we focused on the funky urban art and the Selarόn Steps, the work of Chilean-born eccentric artist Jorge Selarόn. The 215 mosaic steps were built over 23 years as a tribute to the Brazilian people, the steps include thousands of tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world. There’s even a tile showing Selarόn himself, looking very much like a quirky yet charming fellow.
As we walked to our next step in the stifling heat, it was juice time! Juice bars are littered throughout Rio and we lined up for a taste of several exotic juices (suco). We tried suco de acerola (that vitamin C-packed fruit again), suco de graviola (a creamy white juice from a fruit also known as guanábana), suco de cupuaçú (a strange Amazonian fruit juice that changes flavor as you drink it!), suco de cajá (a sweet ‘tropical fruit drink’ flavored juice). Next to the juice bar was a food cart selling pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) which we also sampled. The bread is small and round, made from tapioca flour and with very soft cheese inside. It’s commonly eaten as a snack and even for breakfast. Delicious!
If you want to sample Amazonian cuisine, you’ve got to visit Tacacá do Norte. A tiny restaurant with no more than 15 seats at best, our group was fortunate to arrive early enough that we were able to all be seated. Here, I sampled one of the most exotic meals of my life (and that’s saying a lot as a foodie).
Tacacá is an anesthetic soup common in North Brazil, made with dried shrimps, small yellow peppers, and tucupi (a sauce extracted from the manioc root). But the crown ingredient is jambu, a flowering plant with a grassy taste that gives your mouth a strong tingling and numbing sensation – followed by a bit of excess salivation. The tingling sensation is a very strange feeling – I found that if I bit into the flower part itself the numbness was more acute.
Other Amazonian delicacies we tried included Cerveja Cerpa (beer from northern Brazil) and açaí com guaraná (pulp from the açaí berry gently sweetened with guaraná, a spice from the Amazon, which we ate topped with granola or toasted tapioca). I left Brazil pretty obsessed with açaí – drinking it or eating it as a dessert while in Brazil.
I first truly discovered the fruit and ate it for breakfast nearly every day only to find out afterward that it is extremely expensive to buy online.
Our final stop was lunch – and despite our already full bellies, we were able to tuck in a decent-sized meal at a restaurant that included pastel (deep-fried pastry parcels), queijo coalho na chapa com melado (grilled cheese with molasses), carne see com abobora e feijão de corda (air-dried, salted beef with pumpkin and beans), moqueca de camarão (stew of shrimp, made with coconut milk, peppers and palm oil), and escondidinho de camarão/frango (creamy cassava purée with shrimp/chicken).
On a hot summer’s day, there’s nothing better than washing down all that food with delicious drinks. There was Theresopolis Gold (Pilsner brewed in a town one hour north of Rio), Caipirinha de siriguela, acerola e limão (caipirinhas – ubiquitous Brazilian alcoholic beverages made with siriguela, acerola and lime) and Cachaça de Jambú.
This last spirit is a must-try in Brazil and if I could, I’d have brought bottles of this stuff back home with me as gifts. Remember the tingling/numbing Amazonian plant that we ate in a soup earlier? Well here it’s in a spirit, and the same sensation occurred from drinking it. What was really fascinating was that Felippe told us to swirl it in our mouths for about 30 seconds before swallowing it, and then drink water immediately afterward. The water actually tasted sour after.
Caipirinha de siriguela, acerola e limão – very fruity and packs quite a punch while this bottle of Cachaça de Jambú was a weird sensation in your mouth
Felippe, our food tour guide, was incredibly knowledgeable, warm and personable throughout the entire tour. Tom, who founded Eat Rio, also went above and beyond afterward, sending further tips about things to do and see in Rio. Our group of friends finished the tour with full bellies, a ton of local insights, and lots of fun memories to take back home.
If you’re planning a trip to Rio de Janeiro you should definitely include this tour as part of your itinerary!