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Brazilian breakfast 101

As I’ve already explained in my blog, I took up cooking after moving from Rio de Janeiro to Chicago in order to keep myself busy, and also because I just couldn’t get used to American food. With time, I adjusted to my new life and now I even enjoy certain American dishes — sometimes.

And as it turns out, I’m not alone: Many Brazilians living in the Midwest feel the same kind of saudade (nostalgia) for the food they grew up with. If you are wondering why, a comparison between the American and Brazilian breakfast traditions will help you understand it.

Americans have some breakfast habits that seem peculiar from the Brazilian standpoint, such as eating breakfast at any time of the day and eating breakfast at restaurants — not to mention brunch, breakfast mixed with lunch. By contrast, Brazilians usually eat breakfast between 6 and 8:30 a.m., and always at home.

Americans also tend to eat a lot more for breakfast than Brazilians — not just in terms of quantity, but also in the richness of the food. The most common U.S. breakfast fare includes eggs, mostly scrambled or fried; meat, usually bacon or sausage; hash browns; pancakes or waffles; and lighter items such as cereal, oatmeal, and toast, served with either coffee or juice.

The Brazilian breakfast menu includes some of the same items, such as eggs, toast and cereal, but we usually keep it light, since lunch is our main meal. Brazilians are partial to fruit — whole or in juice or smoothie form — in the morning, and meat and potatoes usually have no room on our breakfast plates; neither do calorie monsters such as cheese-and-meat-stuffed three-egg omelets and massive waffles topped with whipped cream.

And of course, we have some unique breakfast foods. Brazil’s vastness and cultural richness mean there are a variety of regional cuisines across the country, so depending on the state, the breakfast menu may include local delicacies such as pão de queijo (cheese rolls), açaí fruit, cheese curds, mate tea, cornbread, and tapioca.

I recently did a bit of informal research, using the MBIL — Mães Brasileiras de Illinois (Brazilian Mothers of Illinois) mailing list to ask MBIL members about their favorite Brazilian breakfast fare. Mariana Sgarbi, the carioca (Rio de Janeiro native) who runs the mailing list, was one of many who answered that papaya with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice was her favorite.

Brazilian Breakfast 101
Orange juice and sliced papaya (by Alex Portes, cc via Flickr)

Southerner Flavia Prando said she misses the more liquid texture of the Brazilian yogurt she used to have for breakfast. Roberto Martins said nothing beats the simple buttered bread with a média (coffee with milk) cup that he used to get at São Paulo bakeries, but he also misses the Brazilian ham and cheese croissant that goes by different names (enroladinho, mixto quente or joelho).

Ladi Tamara, who hails from the southern state of Paraná, misses pão d’água (a specialty bread that’s crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside), served warm and fresh, with guava paste and mozzarella cheese — a combination popularly known as “Romeo and Juliet.” Mana Schwesig, who came from the southern metropolis of Porto Alegre, mentioned lots of goodies, including gemada (sort of a Brazilian equivalent to eggnog), corn starch meal, creamy polenta, cucas (banana sponge cakes), and warm beverages such as pinhão and quentão.

Northeasterners Manuela Downer, Eliane Lima, and Elizete Morais cited fried carne de sol (dried cured meat) with sautéd onions, buttered boiled cassava, fried cheese curd, boiled sweet potato and plantain, cornbread, and the traditional northeastern corn couscous, with lots of butter. They also remember drinking a wide variety of fruit juices, including some that are difficult or simply impossible to find here — cajá, passion fruit, cashew apple, and umbu.

Northeastern corn couscous
Northeastern corn couscous (by Josefa Rodrigues, cc via Flickr)

In fact, many of the respondents said they miss the habit of going to open-air markets to buy fresh fruit, such as papaya, orange, passion fruit and cashew apple for morning juices, and banana and avocado for morning smoothies. And in another reminder that traditions matter as much as the food itself, Maria Allemana and other MBIL members said they miss the simple habit of going to the neighborhood bakery to buy fresh bread. And by the way, Brazilians don’t buy sliced bread for breakfast — they buy what Americans refer to as French bread, which, as southerner Silva Darnell points out, is often referred to in Brazil as cassetinho.

Where to find Brazilian breakfast items in Chicago

The Brasil Legal store in Bucktown is always a safe bet for Brazilian products in Chicago. If you don’t live nearby, Mexican markets are good places to find products such as frozen fruit pulp, cassava starch, coconut milk, and plantains.

You can find French bread at supermarket chains, Mexican bakeries, and in the frozen products section at Costco. Açaí can be purchased online, and Puck makes the closest thing that I could find to requeijão (Brazilian cream cheese).

I hope this article was informative for readers who knew little to nothing about Brazilian breakfast traditions. If you can read Portuguese visit my blog, True Kitchen, where you’ll find lots of original recipes.

Translated by Nicholas Ferraz de Oliveira

Cover photo: A typical Brazilian breakfast by Irene Nobrega, cc via Flickr; article originally published on our first website, Chicagoano

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5 Comments

  1. In the short time that I spent in Brazil, I remember eating more food than I usually do here, but in smaller portions – and after just a week, I'd lost 5 pounds without ever feeling like I was going hungry. I loved going to the open-air markets, too!

    1. I know me too! When I went to Brazil for two weeks I lost 8lbs. I remember thinking that was crazy, because all I did was eat.

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