A Taste Of Brazil In São Paolo
Sinking my teeth into the salty, mortadella slathered in melted cheese and bookended by a fresh, French baguette, I swear I saw the ghost of Anthony Bourdain lurking in the rafters above the sprawling, open market in downtown São Paulo, Brazil. The cold ‘chopp’, or draft beer, quenched my thirst along with a shot of the Dragonfruit cocktail whose shocking pink and black polka dot juice looked like a swatch for a Betsy Johnson dress. Churrasco, acai and pao de quejo usually take center stage when you think of Brazilian cuisine, but on a recent trip to the largest country in South America, I discovered much more.
Our holiday to Brazil included a stop in São Paulo, birthplace of my travel companion, followed by a few days exploring the state of Minas Gerais, otherwise known as ‘the cheese state’. With 20 million inhabitants, São Paulo serves as the most populous city in South America as well as the center of finance.
A sea of high-rise buildings sprawl over 587 square miles peppered with unique neighborhoods like Liberdade, Higienopolis, and Jardins. It’s no secret that Sao Paulo’s melting pot derives from a number of expat communities including the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, an extensive Lebanese community and an immense Italian diaspora. Can you imagine the plethora of culinary options?
In São Paulo, the first order of business was sushi. After much research and inquiry, we ended up belling up to the sushi bar at Aya well within our 10 P.M. curfew and seated more than six feet away from our fellow patrons. Chef Juraci Pereira, or “Jura”, started off as valet at a restaurant after moving from an interior state and gradually rose to become one of the most celebrated sushi chefs in São Paulo. Tender octopus, delicate bluefin tuna, and fresh albacore melted in my mouth along with the grand finale, grilled, aged-Waygu beef topped with seared fois gras. I might have uttered a jovial chirp.
The next day after touring the city on foot and subway, (we refrained from touching any of the rails or handles), we wandered into the open market famished and parched. The welcoming committee consisted of young would-be sous chefs slicing and chopping a myriad of fresh fruits for us to try ‘de graca’.
Acai, star fruit, mangos, and passionfruit the size of melon lay in carefully constructed pyramids alongside butcher shops and stalls selling Brazil’s signature spirit, Cachaca, made from sugar cane juice. Alas, we settled on the mortadella sandwich Anthony Bordain paid homage to in an episode of his famed series, ‘No Reservations’. I am still thinking about that sandwich.
A Taste Of Brazil In Minas Gerais
Off to Minas Gerais we went in search of an old colonial town called Ouro Preto known as the center of gold mining in the 18th and 19th century. A pleasant change of scenery from heavy traffic, urban cacophony and concrete, our drive to Ouro Preto from the capital, Belo Horizonte, meandered through rolling green pastures, (these cows looked happy!), forested hillsides and deep canyons that sometimes gave way to naked slopes of quarries. Dominated by both the agriculture and mining industries the local cuisine would surely aspire to satiate the best of appetites.
Upon arrival in Ouro Preto, we lunched at Casa do Ouvidor perched on the second floor of a rustic but charming building. Our humble waiter had been serving these same dishes for over forty years! Some specials never go out of fashion for those seeking a hardy meal. My dish, “Tutu A Mineira”, arrived with a slab of roasted pork loin, baked beans, chopped collard greens, pork sausages, rice, and a boiled egg finished with torresmo (fried pig skin).
Images of lumberjacks, farmers and cowboys flooded my mind as I failed to recall the last time I had seen a menu like this; maybe on a family road trip through Oklahoma in 1978? These dishes were clearly created for those enduring hard, physical labor, and as a bonus, curious travelers like ourselves.
As the cheese capital of Brazil, the next culinary adventure was pizza. I have always been a huge fan of pineapple and Canadian bacon and then I tried pizza with ‘goiabada’, sweet guava. Folded into layers of melted cheese, the guava gave the pie a tart and bold flavor that paired blissfully with the local craft beer, Ouropretana Pale Ale. For dessert, we were blessed with fresh passionfruit caipirinha (made with locally distilled Cachaca) accompanied by passionfruit ice cream cycles draped across the glasses. Luckily, Ouro Preto is full of steep cobblestone hills to hike off those extra treats!
New Years Eve dinner at O Passo delivered a four-course menu of more traditional Brazilian cuisine like the pastry wrapped appetizers, grilled beef over gnocci, tres leches and a chocolate tart. We sampled a titillating Brut Rose from the south of Brazil and a bold Cabernet Sauvignon whose subtle tannins highlighted the flavor of the juicy meat.
Upon return to São Paulo, time was running out, but I had always wanted to try the unique fare of Chef Rodrigo Oliveira whose cuisine comes from the northeastern part of Brazil. His popular restaurant, Mocoto, requires a trek to the Zona Norte part of São Paulo, but recently he has dropped a pop-up gig with a limited menu into the smaller, Mercado de Pinheiros in central São Paulo.
A few brief subway rides later we stood inhaling unrecognizable spices, and drooling over the compact food stall churning out traditional Pernambucan dishes such as river fish in a coconut curry sauce garnished with farufa, toasted cassava. We opted for the fish along with slow-cooked jerk beef, (carne de sol), served over creamed potatoes, and “Mocoto” soup of cow’s hoof broth and broad beans. Washed down with Mocoto’s very own cerveza, it was a memorable last meal before departing for home.
Several world-famous restaurants in São Paulo were closed at the time we traveled either due to COVID or because it is tradition to close for the Christmas holiday season. Some of those included D.O.M., Mani, and Tordesilhas. That will leave us something to do next time in this metropolis of culinary wonder! Muito Bom!