Sprawling over eight million square kilometres, Brazil is as massive as it is culturally and geographically diverse.
By
Fernanda de Paula

24 Feb 2015 - 10:06 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 10:48 AM

Fernanda de Paula, Brazilian-Australian journalist and host of the new SBS six-part Television series, This is Brazil!, explores the 12 cities that will play host to Brazil’s 2014 World Cup. On her journey, she discovers the stunning rainforests, pristine beaches, heaving metropolises and the vibrant food that abounds within.

Spending four months exploring the 12 host cities of the 2014 World Cup Brazil as the presenter of This is Brazil! was a life-altering experience. Even as a local, I visited places I had never been before and tasted dishes for the first time. I saw the country where I was born and grew up with a fresh perspective. From the tropical northern states to the plains of the south and into the wilderness of the mighty Amazon, the individuality and uniqueness of each region was stark and captivating.

Hosting the World Cup means a great deal to Brazil, a nation with an immeasurable passion for the sport. It even calls itself ‘o país do futebol’ – the country of football (soccer). For the countless enthusiasts that will journey here to celebrate, there’s more on offer than just football games; there are the myriad sights, sounds, tastes and aromas that make Brazil one of the most vibrant places on Earth. Here are some of the highlights of my journey rediscovering Brazil.

 

Salvador

The signs at Salvador’s airport, ‘Smile, you’re in Bahia’, reveal a lot about the city. Here in the capital of the eastern state of Bahia, a joyful ambience pervades the streets and music can be heard on every corner.

Built in 1549 as the colonial capital of the Portuguese Empire, the city boasts stunning examples of baroque architecture. Pelourinho, the old town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is particularly magical with its colourful mansions and cobbled streets.

Culturally, this port town received a huge influx of African slaves and today their traditions are omnipresent, from music and religion to food. Salvador is also well known for its art scene and arguably the best Carnaval (Carnival) in the country, which attracts more than two million people for six days of revelry.

For the best food in town, all roads lead to Casa de Tereza, where you can find traditional yet sophisticated Bahian fare. Chef Tereza Paim’s take on classic moqueca, slow-cooked seafood stew with coconut milk, vegetables and signature dendê oil (palm oil) served in a clay pot, is a must-try. Dendê, introduced into Brazil by the African slaves, is now an essential ingredient and you’ll notice its orange colour and distinctive aroma in a number of dishes.

Teresa invited me to accompany her to Feira de São Joaquim, the largest produce market in Bahia. Occupying more than

35,000 square metres with over 7000 vendors, the market is an assault on the senses. Here, the scent of chilli mingles with the smell of dried prawns and the blood of freshly slaughtered animals. It’s both chaotic and thrilling.

Together, we traipsed further in through a labyrinth of lanes to the best acarajé stall in the city. Their legendary deep-fried black-eyed bean fritters stuffed with caramelised onions and served with green tomatoes and vatapá (shrimp paste) can’t be rivalled. Each fritter costs $4 and is meant to be a snack, but there’s no room for lunch after this satisfying meal.

 

Hit list

Eat
Casa de Tereza
Modern authentic Bahian cuisine by renowned chef Tereza Paim. Rua Odilon Santos 45, Rio Vermelho, casadetereza.com.br

Feira de São Joaquim
This giant, maze-like daily market is where locals head to haggle for produce. It’s rambunctious and real, and for the adventurous only. Av. Oscar Pontes, Comércio

Nildo Massas
Here within the São Joaquim market is the best acarajé (black-eyed bean fritters) in Salvador. Rua Eng. Oscar Pontes 993, Liberdade

 

See
Two hours from Salvador are the pristine shores and jungle of Praia do Forte. Architecture buffs will appreciate Farol da Barra, a lighthouse at Porto da Barra Beach.

 

Shop
Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Mauá
Founded over 70 years ago as a government initiative to preserve and promote Bahian handicrafts, this shop stocks a wide range of homewares, including crochet bedspreads and sculptures. Rua Gregorio de Matos 27, Pelourinho, +55 71 3116 6700, maua.ba.gov.br

 

 

Rio De Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is not just a city; it’s a vibe and it’s infectious. While the beauty of its mountainous landscape adorned with long white-sand beaches is unparalleled, what really makes Rio, the second-largest city in Brazil, a place that excites the world’s imagination are its residents. Known as Cariocas, locals have mastered the art of enjoying life. They’re friendly, mischievous, undeniably sexy and exhilarating to be around.

The beach is the city’s playground and a social event not to be missed. Bring yourself, choose a spot and soon a chair, umbrella and a crowd of party-goers will follow. Drinks, including beer and caipirinhas, Brazil’s signature cocktail of cachaça, lime and sugar, are available for order and food vendors pass by with tempting options, from savoury pastries and prawn kebabs to my all-time favourite queijo coalho. This firm but lightweight cheese grilled over charcoal and typically sprinkled with oregano has an almost squeaky texture when eaten. Think haloumi, only better.

Brazil is a country of contrasts and in Rio they scream even louder. Sitting on Ipanema Beach looking to the right you can see Vidigal, one of the city’s hundreds of favelas (slums). Now, due to increased police presence under the UPP (Police Pacification Unit) government initiative, the favelas are safer and becoming popular with visitors, some of whom head here for authentic food.

Tia Léa’s famed eatery above her house and signature feijoada were reason to venture up the hill. The hearty stew of black beans and smoked pork served with finely sliced stir-fried Chinese broccoli, chopped oranges and rice is a Brazilian favourite. The meal was delicious, but Tia Léa’s pleasure in watching customers enjoy her food made it all the more of a highlight.

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – or so goes the old adage. In Brazil, it’s through his stomach and football.

To understand the country’s passion for the game, watch a match at Maracanã stadium, the country’s official football temple. For their passion for food, eat like a local with the football snack of choice, hot dogs. Or, try Rio specialties of Biscoito Globo, a popular brand of cassava flour biscuits, and mate tea.

 

Hit list

Eat
Laje da Tia Léa
In Vidigal Hill in the favelas is one of Rio’s best feijoada, served by charismatic owner ‘Aunty’ Léa. Rua Moema Noronha 1B, Vidigal, +55 21 8089 9961

 

Shop
Rua Visconde de Pirajá, one of Ipanema’s fashionable streets, is a shopping haven, from fashion and cosmetics to homewares. Head to the corner of Rua Garcia D’Avila for more upmarket boutiques.

 

See
No visit to Rio is complete without a trip up Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) for striking views of the city. While rock climbing is popular with thrill-seekers, an ascent to the top in a comfortable cable car is the most popular.

 

 

São Paulo

Imagine the entire population of Australia in one city. Then, reduce the urban infrastructure – that’s more or less São Paulo. I once heard: “São Paulo is the ugliest place you will ever fall in love with”. As strange as it sounds, it’s a shared sentiment. It’s the biggest city in the southern hemisphere, the business capital of Brazil and a veritable melting pot of cultures (Japan and Lebanon’s largest expat communities can be found here). However, with the hustle and bustle comes everything at your fingertips. São Paulo has it all.

Food lovers, in particular, will have a ball. Number seven on the 2014 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list is São Paulo restaurant D.O.M., where chef Alex Atala redefines Brazilian cuisine using ingredients sourced in the Amazon rainforest. He’s also reinventing regional Brazilian classics and serving them at (somewhat) more accessible prices at his sister restaurant Dalva e Dito.

While there are numerous upmarket restaurants in town, a gastronomic journey not to be missed is São Paulo’s municipal market, known locally as Mercadão (meaning big market). Opened in 1933, the neo-Baroque building was the city’s first grocery store. Today, the covered market is filled with stalls selling almost every gourmet delight, from olive oil and wine to tropical fruit, cheese, meat and seafood. I visited over Easter, when piles of bacalhau (salted cod), a favourite during the season, were on display and throngs of customers scouted around for the best catch.

Here, pastel de bacalhau, a deep-fried pastry filled with salted cod, pickled hearts of palm and spring onion, is a must-try. Mine was warm, dripping with oil and absolutely delectable.

The experience – sitting at a counter watching the barman pour chopp (draft beer) and listening to a heated conversation about last night’s football game – was as unforgettable as the pastel’s flavour.

If you’re lucky enough to see a football match, make sure to savour sanduíche de pernil, a juicy pork shank sandwich and signature stadium food in São Paulo. It’s a perfect match to cold beer and the rhythmic beat of drums that fills the arenas.

 

Hit list

Eat
D.O.M.
Chef Alex Atala’s award-wining restaurant showcases indigenous Brazilian ingredients. Rua Barão de Capanema 549, Jardins São Paulo, +55 11 3088 0761, domrestaurante.com.br 

Dalva e Dito
The casual sister to Alex Atala’s D.O.M., featuring modern takes on Brazilian classics. Rua Padre João Manuel 1115, Cerqueira César, +55 11 3068 4444, dalvaedito.com.br 

Mercado Municipal
Also known as Mercadão, this covered produce market in the heart of São Paulo is a food-lover’s haven. Rua da Cantareira 306, Sé Centro, +55 11 3313 3365

 

Shop
Head to chic Rua Oscar Freire, Brazil’s equivalent of Rodeo Drive. Or, for a bargain hunter’s paradise, try Rua 25 de Março 

 

 

Manaus

As the plane descends into Manaus, it looks like it’s going to land on an immense green carpet. Then suddenly Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon and the capital of the state of Amazonas, emerges. At the turn of the 20th century, Manaus was one of the richest cities in the world thanks to a thriving rubber trade from the native rubber tree. The golden era lasted just over 30 years, cut short by an enterprising Brit who had transported seeds from the sought-after Amazon botanical to Asia in 1876, upturning the monopoly. During its glory days, however, a host of beautiful buildings, including Teatro Amazonas (Amazon Theatre), were built using only the finest European materials. Set in the middle of the jungle, such extravagant constructions are a sight to behold.

The grand Amazon River also crosses the city and with more than 2000 species of fish living in the Amazon Basin, it’s no surprise that local indigenous cuisine is based around pescado (fish). A visit to the local seafood market reveals shapes and forms that you’ve never seen before.

The same level of exoticism can be found in roadside market stalls selling tropical produce in eye-popping colours and overwhelming variety. Among the highlights is now world-famous açaí, a native berry that’s been a staple of the tribes of northern Brazil for centuries. Loaded with vitamins and minerals, açaí is often touted as a superfood.

Açaí purée, tambaqui fish barbecue and tacacá, a soup of jambu leaves (which produce a tingling sensation when eaten), dried prawns and manioc (also known as cassava) broth, are sold everywhere.

In fact, you can have a very healthy diet here eating street food only. Native Amazonian cuisine, like the rest of the country, uses manioc in abundance. The root vegetable is native to South America and has been cultivated in Brazil for over 10,000 years. It is a key source of carbohydrates and is often described as ‘the bread of the tropics’.

Beyond incredible, unique produce, the Amazon is testimony that nowhere in Brazil is too remote to play football. In Manaus, locals are up for a match even when riverside pitches are flooded, playing for 90 minutes in knee-deep water. Perhaps the nutrient-rich foods of the surrounding rainforest are the key to such high energy levels, as are the flavours of regional food all around Brazil.

“The grand Amazon River also crosses the city and with more than 2000 species of fish living in the Amazon Basin, it’s no surprise that local indigenous cuisine is based around pescado (fish). A visit to the local seafood market reveals shapes and forms that you’ve never seen before.”

 

Hit list

Eat
Ivete’s stall

This family business has sold tacacá soup for over 50 years and is renowned as the best in town. Avenida Ramos Ferreira

 

See
Ponta Negra
About 14km out of Manaus is this beachside town complete with luxury hotels, scenic parks and nightlife.

Teatro Amazonas
An immaculate European-constructed theatre built during the height of the rubber boom. Praça São Sebastião, +55 92 3232 1768

 

Shop
Galeria Amazônica
Shop here for a selection of traditional and contemporary regional art. Rua Costa Azevedo, 272, +55 92 3233 4521, galeriamazonica.org.br 

 

 

What to expect from other cities on the tour:

Belo Horizonte
Belo Horizonte, or Beagá as the city is also known (after the sound of BH in Portuguese), is famous for its bohemian lifestyle, hospitable people and mouth-watering cuisine. It’s also my hometown. Feijão tropeiro, a traditional regional dish (and football-stadium favourite), is a delicious mix of pinto beans with cassava flour, speck, vegetables and eggs.

 

Curitiba
Famed as an urban-planning marvel, Curitiba has the highest quality of life in Brazil, complete with countless manicured parks, a seamless public transport system and well-educated locals. The official dish, raw beef seasoned with eight spices and served on a slice of bread, is colloquially known as carne de onça, meaning feline meat.

Porto Alegre
Porto Alegre is the capital of Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil’s southern-most state, which also borders Uruguay and Argentina. The region is known for its gaúcho (cowboy) culture, as well as the legendary churrasco (barbecue), which originated here.

Brasilia
Brasília, the new capital of Brazil (following Rio de Janiero), was stunningly designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer and built in less than four years in the 1950s in an attempt to create a modern utopia. A local favourite is chicken and rice with pequi (a local fragrant fruit also known as souari nut). 

Fortaleza
With over 20 kilometres of striking coastline, Fortaleza attracts countless visitors for its urban beaches. The city also serves as a gateway to even more spectacular beaches, rolling dunes and idyllic fishing villages up and down the Ceará coast. A simple but delectable regional meal is baião de dois, rice with fresh black-eye beans.

Cuiaba
Located in the exact geographic centre of South America, Cuiabá is the capital of the state of Mato Grosso and an entry point for excursions into Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. The region’s signature dish of mojica de pintado, a river fish stew, makes the most of the surrounding local produce.

Natal
Nicknamed ‘the City of the Sun’ for its high average of bright days, Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte, is also famous for its enormous sand dunes. The surrounding pristine coastline offers up bountiful seafood, which is used to make a number of local specialties, including crab stew. 

Recife
With a Dutch architectural heritage characterised by several rivers, small islands and more than 50 connecting bridges, the city of Recife is one of the most beautiful historical cities in the world. Grilled meats are big here, and the exotic buchada de bode or goat tripe stew is worth tasting.

 

 

Photography Shelley Hepworth, Eduardo De Macedo, Getty Images & 4Corners images.

 

As seen in Feast magazine, July 2014, Issue 33.