Discover Brazil’s True Food Capital, According to Locals
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because frango com quiabo mineiro is heaven on earth.
After four hours of white-knuckle driving on a dirt road, my friend and I wandered cobblestoned streets looking for a place to eat in one of Brazil’s oldest towns in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. The colorful shutters on the colonial buildings were shut — our unexpected drive through backcountry had landed us in this small city, Tiradentes, at 10 p.m. on a Sunday — and I was beginning to think we’d be going to bed hungry.
But we came across an open restaurant, Tragaluz, with centuries-old brick walls, wooden beams and candlelit tables. The owner, Pedro Navarro, chatted with us and we were served a meal to remember — the perfect lime caipirinha made with local cachaça (Brazilian sugarcane liquor) and wild hen in soupy rice with herbs, plus, for dessert, guava paste with cashews and fried bananas with cinnamon and vanilla ice cream. We were welcomed with everything this landlocked state is famous for: excellent cachaça, delicious food and abiding hospitality.
Culinária mineira is Brazil’s comfort food, loaded with carbs, cheese and meat.
Many argue that Minas Gerais is Brazil’s true food capital. São Paulo has got the international variety and Salvador has the strong African influence, but Minas Gerais is a place where food is deeply ingrained in the state’s everyday culture — growing it, cooking it, eating it and celebrating with it. All gatherings of mineiros (locals) revolve around a full table whether it’s breakfast, lunch, afternoon coffee or dinner, explains Rafaela Bueno, a native of Minas Gerais who now lives in Rio de Janeiro. “Meals last a long time — mineiros aren’t in a rush,” she adds.
Culinária mineira is Brazil’s comfort food, loaded with carbs, cheese and meat — it feeds both stomach and soul, says Navarro. “It’s honest food … it’s cozy, it reminds us of home and has a lot of sentimental value.” Evolving from the region’s history of manual labor in the fields, mines and mountains (Minas Gerais literally translates to “General Mines”), culinária mineira also has influence from the Portuguese (the colonizers), the Africans (the enslaved people working the land) and the indigenous Brazilians (who’d been cooking the local produce long before anyone else). The result: dishes like slow-cooked chicken and okra-marinated cachaça and lime juice (frango com quiabo mineiro), sun-dried beef jerky with a fried egg and sautéed collard greens (carne seca à mineira), rich black bean paste (tutu), thick African-style cornmeal (angu) and rice with yuca flour, beef, sausage, red beans, onion and garlic (feijão tropeiro).
Only slightly smaller than Texas, the massive state is packed with dairy farms, ranches, coffee plantations and alambiques (cachaça distilleries). Its most famous export, queijo minas is a cheese combined with yuca flour to make one of Brazil’s favorite snacks: pão de queijo (cheese bread) — an irresistible, chewy, cheesy roll found at bakeries all over the country. Both the cheese and bread are considered cultural heritages of the region, notes Navarro.
For many mineiros, food isn’t just another thing you do three times a day, it’s culture and identity. “In Minas, 12 p.m. is sacred, it’s time to have lunch and that lunch is not a sandwich. It’s lunch that’s probably been being prepared since 10:30,” says Lanna Leite, a mineira who was raised in New York. “What I miss the most is the culture of making food and the people making it.”
GO THERE: MINAS GERAIS, BRAZIL
- Directions: Either take an overnight bus or fly into the state’s capital, Belo Horizonte — there are several daily flights and many bus routes from Rio and São Paulo, usually for a good price. Or, rent a car and drive from Rio or São Paulo (both border Minas Gerais).
- Check Out: Beyond cosmopolitan Belo Horizonte, head to the famous small colonial towns of Tiradentes, Ouro Preto and São João del Rei. The state is also home to many parks packed with hiking trails and waterfalls, like Ibitipoca State Park and Furnas Canyon.
- Pro Tip: Mineiros are incredibly friendly and proud of their culinary heritage — if you’re looking for the best food and drink in town, just ask around and you’ll be inundated with recommendations (and maybe even an invite for afternoon coffee and homemade doce de leite at someone’s house).