Brazil: Ready for Its Culinary Close-Up

continued (page 2 of 2)

Perhaps the most significant reason traditional Brazilian cuisine has failed to win the hearts and taste buds of Americans is the most obvious one of all: When it comes to immigrants to the U.S., Brazil just doesn't have the numbers compared with other groups whose cuisine has flourished Stateside.

"Our ethnic cooking is defined by the people who have come here," Vettel says. "Brazil, possibly because there are fewer reasons to want to flee, hasn't had a whole lot of impact on the American melting pot just yet." Pockets of Brazilian immigrants exist in the U.S., totaling an estimated 300,000, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, there are an estimated 680,000 Chinese immigrants in New York City alone, which makes it no surprise that Chinese restaurants vastly outnumber Brazilian restaurants across the country. The small scale of the natural, built-in customer base makes popularizing, much less introducing, a foreign cuisine that much more difficult.

With so many strikes against Brazilian cuisine, can two worldwide sporting events be enough to shine the spotlight internationally on this neglected culinary culture? The odds seem increasingly in Brazil's favor, particularly given the sheer magnitude of the upcoming influx of visitors to the country. Hosting sporting events of world scale will introduce countless spectators to Brazilian culture—and cuisine—be it thousands of miles away via their televisions, or inside the walls of Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã Stadium. The world will read, talk, and hear about Brazil more than ever before. More exposure to Brazilian culture means more taste ambassadors for Brazilian food, both near and far.

The current upswing in Brazil's economy also bodes well. "Up until 10 years ago, Brazil was just another underdeveloped country," says Schwartz, whose next two Brazilian-themed cookbooks will be released to coincide with both the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. "As the country solidifies its economy and its influence, the world will start paying attention."

Economic forecasts have Brazil creeping past France to claim the fifth largest GDP in the world by 2016. That growth has also led to stronger ties to the international food sector, according to Da Fonseca. "More Brazilian food companies are creating professional relationships with other countries around the world," he says. In addition to cultivating new partnerships, Brazil has been strengthening its role as one of the leading exporters of soybeans and meat. Meat exports grew from less than 2 million tons in 2000 to more than 6 million tons in 2011, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Forecasts for 2020 predict the number to reach as high as 8.5 million tons.

An increase in tourism, a booming economy, two back-to-back worldwide sporting events—what more could a country need to extend its cultural and culinary influence abroad? Naysayers would argue that even an event as massive as the Olympics isn't enough to revive, or in Brazil's case, establish, a culinary presence beyond a country's borders.

"There's nowhere to go but up in terms of an overall consciousness and understanding of what traditional Brazilian cuisine has to offer," says Vettel, who admits he breathed a small sigh of relief when Chicago lost the Olympic bid to Rio because he realized he now has six years to figure out how to pronounce feijoada. (Hint: fey-SHUA-da.)

Platt is hopeful the 2014 and 2016 events will be enough to bring traditional Brazilian cuisine mainstream in America, noting that it "deserves the spotlight and popularity." And as a native Brazilian living in the States, Schwartz is also optimistic that Brazil will shine as a country that's about more than just steakhouses. "My hopes are there," she says. "Now let's just see if the demand is there to match."

Subscribe to Gourmet