I polled more than a dozen renowned critics across the country for their take on Brazilian cuisine stateside, and the replies echoed an underwhelming chorus of “It’s not my area of expertise,” “I don’t know much about Brazilian food,” and “We don’t have Brazilian restaurants in [insert major city name here].”
Unlike the cuisines of Italy, China, and Thailand (to name just a few), Brazil never gained a foothold in the American food landscape—even when the samba was popularized in the United States in the 1940s. Aside from açaí berries and the Caipirinha cocktail, Americans have come to associate Brazilian cuisine with only one small niche: steakhouses.
The Brazilian steakhouse scene in the states is a diverse one. International chains Fogo de Chão and Texas de Brazil lead the charge, with locations in most major U.S. cities, as well as seven Fogo de Chão locations in Brazil. Smaller national chains, including Rodizio Grill (nine locations) and Boi Na Braza (two locations), round out the pack. While some of the chains prove to be more traditional in their menu offerings than others, all are centered on the concept of all-you-can-eat proteins sliced and served tableside from giant skewers. It’s a “meat, meat, and more meat” mentality, according to Lauren Shockey, a New York City–based food writer and former restaurant critic at The Village Voice.
The focus on roasted meat—specifically Brazil’s famed churrasco (grilled beef)—rather than the country’s more traditional dishes, such as feijoada (black bean stew) and shrimp bobó (shrimp in yucca cream), is for good reason. “The steakhouse concept isn’t foreign in America,” explains Almir Da Fonseca, a Brazilian food expert and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America. “It was easy to translate in the States because steak is not only familiar, but it’s also readily available.”
Churrasco’s overshadowing presence isn’t the only reason more traditional dishes haven’t caught on with the meat-and-potato-loving palates of the American public. “In Brazil, we don’t have a Julia Child, a Craig Claiborne, a Charlie Trotter, or an Escoffier,” says Leticia Moreinos Schwartz, a Brazilian chef and cookbook author. “If you look back 100 years ago, there was someone in nearly every global cuisine who was already a thinker. We didn’t have anybody.” The sparse culinary history has only recently changed course as Brazilian chefs step out of the shadows and onto the national culinary stage.
“There’s a paucity of high-profile chefs in Brazil, and not a lot of them have global ambition,” Platt says. The closest chef to celebrity status in Brazil is Alex Atala, who at the age of 44 is the creative mastermind behind Brazil’s crowning restaurant achievement: D.O.M. Located in São Paulo, D.O.M. ranked fourth on Restaurant magazine’s 2012 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—its highest ranking since opening in 1999. But even Atala and D.O.M. haven’t been enough to make Brazil a food force to be reckoned with in the United States.
As I read all the articles in this brilliant issue, I went through so many different emotions and feelings!
Let me start from the beginning: First, Gourmet Magazine is very close and near to my heart.Ever since I moved to U.S twelve years ago, I would purchased it, then became a subscriber, and was very, very sad when it became extinct after its 70 years of existence.
So, to see my favorite food magazine dedicate a whole issue to my beloved country’s food and culinary was very emotional. Reading “Brazilian Regional Foods and the history behind our colonization brought tears to my eyes. It translates so accurately who we Brazilians are: a melting pot of cultures and people that really melted together into only one: We are Brazilians! Not Lebanese-Brazilians, Japanese-Brazilians, Italian-Brazilians and so forth. It doesn’t matter where your ancestors immigrated from. Take myself as an example, I come from Italian, German-Swiss, Spanish, Lebanese, Portuguese and Brazilian Indian people that somehow ended up in this beautiful country together.
And this is why our food is so wonderful and diverse. Who would think that one of the most popular fast food chains is Brazil serves Lebanese-Syrian food and is named Habib’s? And that our most popular dish, is the Feijoada ( black bean and pork stew, served with fried collard greens, toasted yucca Farofa and oranges),which was brought in by African slaves in the 1500′s? And that we eat lots of seafood, and love cooking them in coconut milk and palm oil?
Like the article above shows, most people only know Brazilian food as Churrasco and meat. So every time somebody finds out I am a Brazilian chef I sight and wait because I know what their next questions is going to be: So what is your specialty? Do you cook lots of meat? Steak? Churrasco?
At first that would upset me a little that this is the only food Brazilians are associated with. Now, I understand that Churrascarias are pretty much the only Brazilian restaurants out there. And the all you can eat meat on a stick is a new concept to Americans, and they love it. I love it too.
But I want people to know we cook so many more wonderful dishes. So I tell them about our Bobo de Camarao; a stew made with coconut milk, yucca and shrimp. And Salt Cod with potatoes, bell peppers and black olives,braised in olive oil. And the fruits you can’t find here, such as jabuticaba, pitanga,and acerola.
This is why when I read Gourmet’s Brazil issue I was so happy to see others are also starting to learn and appreciate different aspects of our culture and food. Brazilian chef Alex Atala’s restaurant D.O.M ranked fourth in the 2010 50 Best Restaurants in the World (the restaurant is amazing and I will be posting here soon my experience there). So, I had to share it here.
The whole Brazil Issue is great, and available at the Gourmet Live Blog.