As a current resident of São Paulo, I can say with certainty that Brazilian food is criminally underrated on the world stage. Where Mexican food has flourished as an internationally loved cuisine, for some strange reason Brazilian food has floundered, failing to catch on outside of Brazil. We know that Brazilians are a talented bunch; they excel in soccer, surfing, bossa nova, and hosting the world’s greatest parties, but they also have a culinary gift and an ability to maximize flavor and creativity within every dish they make. If you are into food (and I am going to assume that goes for pretty much everybody) then you must make it a priority to discover the incredible world of Brazilian food culture. There’s no better way to do that than to explore Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo.
São Paulo is home to over 12 million people and much like the rest of Brazil, it is a total melting pot. You see, it’s not just that Brazilian cuisine is delicious, it’s that Brazilians have also adopted many other cuisines as their own and put their own spin on them, creating mouthwatering fusion foods that are anything but gimmicky. On top of that, being a world city (and the biggest city in South America) has led São Paulo to become a culinary capital and a hub of fine dining, attracting world class chefs and multiple Michelin stars.
First things first, you’ll need to get acquainted with Brazilian food. Brazilian cuisine focuses heavily on rice, beans and meat and it’s also largely gluten free, due to the beloved and widely used cassava plant, which makes for an excellent flour substitute. Your first stop must be to try feijoada, a traditional stew made with meat and beans, served with rice, kale, fried bananas and a crunchy topping called farofa. Make sure to wash it down with a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice or a caipirinha, Brazil’s favorite cocktail. Don’t make any plans afterwards either; if you have feijoada for lunch, you’ll most likely want to spend the rest of your day sleeping it off. Now, the trick with Brazil is to do as the locals do. You will find botecos on almost every corner, filled with everyday folk stopping for lunch as they go about their day. Scope out the busiest boteco near your accommodation and get your fill of feijoada there—I promise you won’t be disappointed. Keep in mind, though, Brazilians like to eat certain meals on certain days—feijoada days are Wednesdays and Saturdays. Use this same method to find yourself a traditional Brazilian padaria (bakery) and order yourself two Brazilian staples: pão de queijo (the best cheese bread you will ever taste) and a coxinha, a cone shaped fried dough ball usually filled with chicken.
If you’d like to try a more fine dining interpretation of Brazilian food, São Paulo has you covered. You must visit D.O.M, a restaurant by Alex Atala, Brazil’s most famous chef. Its contemporary menu is inspired by traditional Brazilian ingredients and meals are based on Amazonian and indigenous foods and cooking techniques. Next, don’t miss the incredible creations of famous Brazilian chef Helena Rizzo. She has three separate restaurants in São Paulo, all delicious, but with very different vibes. Her fine dining restaurant Maní focuses on small plates in an intimate setting (you will definitely need to book a table here) but she also has Restaurante Manioca, which you’ll find inside the upscale shopping center, Shopping Iguatemi. This is one of my favorite places in São Paulo. Don’t be put off by the shopping center; once you’re inside, you won’t even notice. Finally, for a more casual experience visit Rizzo’s Padoca do Mani, a rustic brunch spot and bakery. Also worth your while is Vista, the restaurant on the top floor of art gallery MAC USP. Enjoy stunning views of the city and Ibirapuera Park as you dine out on delicious and authentic Brazilian fare.
Brazilians are very health conscious people, and that’s not that hard when you have access to some of the most exotic and delicious produce Mother Earth has to offer. Farmers come into São Paulo regularly to sell their harvest, and throughout the city you will find many feiras—local markets filled with incredible fruits and vegetables unlike you’ve ever seen or tasted. Vendors will be happy to let you taste various fruits, especially once they realize you’re a tourist, so dig in! Just make sure to buy something too. All feiras will have a stall selling two must try items: freshly squeezed sugarcane juice with lime, and pastel, a tasty fried thin-crust pie with various fillings. So your post taste-testing lunch is sorted. If you’d prefer, visit the permanent Mercado Municipal in the city’s center, where the vendors will practically be throwing delicious fruits your way. Inside the market, just upstairs, you will find Bar do Mané, which serves an enormous (and enormously famous) mortadella sandwich, eaten by Anthony Bourdain on his television show No Reservations.
If you’re more of a meat lover, then you cannot leave São Paulo without visiting a traditional churrascaria, a buffet restaurant that specializes in all-you-can-eat barbeque. Visit Churrascaria Estância, or, for a more high end experience, try Barbacoa, in the trendy restaurant district Itaim Bibi. Brazilians love all-you-can-eat restaurants so much that they have their own word for it, rodízio, and you can find rodízio restaurants for practically anything, including pizza and sushi. So, if you’re traveling on a budget, keep the word rodízio front and center in your mind.
Speaking of sushi, Brazil has the highest Japanese population outside of Japan, and thus Brazilian Japanese food is some of the best in the world. To try the most authentic Japanese food, visit Yamaga in São Paulo’s Japantown, Liberdade. For something a little more upscale, you can’t miss Nagayama in Itaim, and for rodízio sushi, try Aoyama in Moema. It’s also estimated that there are around 10 million inhabitants of Lebanese descent settled in Brazil, and so Lebanese and Middle Eastern food are widely loved here. Try Brasserie Victória for incredible Lebanese food.
If you are looking for spots that feel a little more trendy, visit Cora, a rooftop bar and restaurant in the city’s center; Paloma, a hidden spot inside the Edifício Copan, a building by famous architect Oscar Niemeyer; or Caracol Bar, a very cool cocktail bar with burgers, snacks, a DJ and dancing. If you’re looking for city views, try Seen, Skye Bar and Restaurant, or Terraço Italia; trust me, you must make it a priority to see São Paulo from up high—it’s a concrete jungle unlike any other and makes New York City look like a quaint outer city suburb.
Finally, once you feel so full you could burst, spend a day strolling through the beautiful Ibirapuera Park and order yourself an authentic Brazilian acaí bowl and slurp on some coconut water, straight out of the coconut, at one of the park’s many cafes or vendors. Don’t forget to break the coconut open and eat the meat too, just like the Brazilians do.
Basically, São Paulo has something for every kind of foodie, from meat lovers to vegans, budget travelers to big spenders, and from culinary adventurers to lovers of tradition. Whatever you prefer, I guarantee you’ll be able to eat your way through São Paulo and leave feeling satisfied. And due to the exchange rate, I’m sure your wallet will be pretty happy, too.
Bryony Parker is a writer and artist currently living in São Paulo, Brazil and working on her Masters in International Affairs. You can find her at @par666ker on all social media.