São Paulo is by far the most cosmopolitan city in all of Brazil: the financial capital of a booming economy, and home to a large population of Japanese, Italian, Lebanese, Syrian, and other immigrants. It's known for its top-notch Brazilian and international restaurants, but according to Cavalcanti, the history of comida Paulista has its roots in two very down-to-earth developments: the introduction of rice, which was rare before the mid 1800s (but which then became an everyday staple when combined with beans), and the prevalence of small closed-off areas in households where chicken and pigs are raised for household consumption. The combination of native spices and produce with rice and domestically raised poultry and livestock resulted in quintessentially southeast Brazilian dishes such as cuscuz Paulista and lombo com farofa.
Thanks to immigrants from the Arab world, including the Syrians and Lebanese who arrived beginning in the late 19th century, one can find quibes (or falafel) on any São Paulo street corner. Italians, meanwhile, brought over their traditional spaghetti and Neapolitan pizza, and Japanese immigrants their sushi. To put São Paulo's international profile into perspective, by 1895 the population was 130,000, 59,000 of which were natives, 45,000 Italians, and the rest immigrants from other cultures.
In the state of Espírito Santo, which hugs the Atlantic coastline of Brazil between Rio and Bahia, seafood, fish, and crustaceans form the backbone of the cuisine. Espírito Santo is best known for its moqueca Capixaba. Unlike the moqueca popular in Bahia, here the seafood stew is seasoned with urucum (achiote or annatto), a pigment that gives it a reddish color. Seafood pies, or tortas, are another specialty; they are made with salted cod and might also contain crab, oysters, shrimp, and lobster.
West of Espírito Santo is the state of Minas Gerais, the epicenter of yet another distinctive regional Brazilian cuisine. Three Mineiros dishes in particular have infiltrated Brazilian households everywhere: At every dining room table in Brazil you will encounter a round of queijo Minas, cheese that's either eaten on toast or with a slice of guava paste. A jar of sweet, caramel-like doce de leite is in every kitchen cabinet, and pão de queijo, or cheese bread, is sold at every bakery and served at restaurants. Minas is also well known for its preserved fruits: papaya, figs, bananas, pineapples, orange, plums, or mangoes in a sugary syrup.
When it comes to meals, Minas is all about pork, which includes pork fat or lard, and greens like okra or thinly chiffonaded collards that get flash-fried with garlic and olive oil. Feijão tropeiro, a traditional preparation of red or black beans, and tutu de feijão are perfect examples of signature dishes from Minas.
What to Eat From Southeast Brazil
Aipim Frito: The French fry of Brazil, but made with yucca.
Bolinhos de Bacalhao: Fried croquettes made with dried cod. Delicious with a cold beer.
Bacalhao à Gomes do Sá: Olive oil–baked salt cod served with potatoes, onions, and olive oil. Can be garnished with olives and cooked eggs.
Camarão com Chuchu: Small-shrimp stew with chayote.
Couve à Mineira: Collards that have been chiffonaded hair-thin and then flash-fried with olive oil, salt, and garlic.
Coxinha: A deep-fried potato cake generally stuffed with pulled chicken and/or Catupiry (a soft, tangy cheese).
Cozido à Carioca: A dish that also exists in present-day Portugal but is much more elaborate in its Brazilian incarnation, consisting of a variety of stewed meats and root vegetables and plantains, cooked for many hours.
Cuscuz Paulista: A very traditional São Paulo dish made with manioc flour, onions, garlic, tomatoes, olives, heart of palm, pork, and chicken all combined to fit a Bundt cake–type mold.
Doce de Leite: A popular dessert made from either a boiled can of condensed milk or milk, sugar, and baking soda.
Feijão Tropeiro: A bean dish containing pieces of smoked pork fat, manioc flour, onion, and eggs.
Feijoada Carioca: Bean stew made with different cuts of meat, like pig's ears and feet, bacon, smoked pork, and beef. It's usually served with white rice and farofa.
Lombo com Farofa: Pork tenderloin accompanied by a version of toasted manioc flour that contains green onions, parsley, raisins, hard-boiled egg, onions, tomatoes, prunes, and roughly chopped walnuts.
Moqueca Capixaba: A variation of seafood stew, or moqueca, that uses olive oil instead of palm oil and omits coconut milk. The stew contains onions, cilantro, chives, tomatoes, and urucum, and is cooked in a clay pot.
Pão de Queijo: Round cheese breads made with manioc starch (polvilho).
Pastel de Camarão: A Brazilian empanada made with shrimp.
Picanha: A cut of beef common in Brazil but difficult to find elsewhere. It's technically top sirloin cap with a fatty layer on top. This cut of meat requires no marination other than being rolled in rock salt. It's skewered and grilled.
Tutu de Feijão: A black bean dish made with garlic, sausage, bacon pieces, and toasted manioc flour.
Paraná, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina
Churrascarias have become the most popular representation of Brazilian cuisine abroad, and we have the southernmost part of Brazil to thank for that. According to the book A Pátria nas Panelas there is no single recipe for a gaucho churrasco (gaucho being what you call someone from Rio Grande). Instead, show up at a gaucho's house on Sunday and chances are he'll be deep in discussion about how best to soften or marinate their meats—in either milk, Cognac, cachaça, or honey. Those who prefer the more traditional approach use sal grosso (rock salt) and nothing else to marinate their meat. Regardless of the method, it's advised that the meat be left resting for at least one night.