Brazil has some pretty tasty street food. Not as crazy and varied as, say, Mexico or Taiwan. This makes sort of easy to rank the best street food, as any list like that by anyone would have more or less the same choices. But probably in a different order.
10 – Pamonha
Pamonhas are like tamales, except they’re made out of the corn itself, not out of corn meal. Brazilian corn is very fibrous and not too sweet, so the mashed corn can go into the wrapper and be boiled directly in water. There are sweet and savoury pamonhas. The pamonha vendor occurs in many forms and shapes. She can walk down the street playing a triangle, or drive a car full of pamonhas playing the chant through loudspeakers. The pamonha car drives people crazy, it’s so annoying. More about pamonha here.
9 – Espetinho de camarão
Of all the numerous skewers you can get in the street in Brazil, from chicken hearts to succulent beef, from spicy sausage to cheese, the shrimp one in my favourite. Usually sold at the beach, I always have to get one or two, throwing all my health concerns out in the ocean.
8 – Queijo coalho
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OK, this is the other kebab I get at the beach. Fresh cheese grilled in front of you. It tastes like it should, so it’s not out of this world, but it’s there, you’re hungry, and you get to chat with the vendor and it’s relaxing to see it being made, I guess.
7 – Empadinha
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Every culture in the world has some version of this: a seasoned meat with vegetables packed inside some dough and baked. In Brazil our little pies are empadinhas, and they have the traditional fillings of shrimp or palm hearts or chicken (people experiment a lot with non-traditional fillings). Found mostly at beaches and at the corner bar or bakery. And in my house: my empadinhas are killers.
6 – Tapioca (cuscuz)
A type of tapioca pudding made from tapioca balls (like the ones used for bubble tea, just much smaller and transparent), grated coconut, coconut milk and served with condensed milk on top, it pleases immensely the sweet teeth out there. I’m getting into a sugar coma just by writing about it. It’s called tapioca in São Paulo (which causes a considerable amount of confusion with tapioquinha, see below) and cuscuz in Rio (don’t get me started with this confusion – there some 78 dishes called cuscuz in Brazil, all very different).
5 – Caldo de cana
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Sugar cane juice or garapa, freshly squeezed, is also a bomb of sugar. Very pleasant “herbal” taste. Drunk pure or mixed with lime juice or pineapple juice. Found at the feira (farmer’s market), a place that equals paradise in my little universe.
4 – Tapioquinha
A delicate crepe made with tapioca starch. It’s sort of magical seeing the flower (polvilho), just by itself, with no grease or any other ingredients, turning into this crispy and chewy little crepe just by pan grilling it. My favourite filling is cheese, but coconut and condensed milk is also popular. This is native food, directly from the jungle to the streets and farmer’s markets of Brazilian urban centres.
3 – Acarajé
Acarajé is so important in the culture of the state of Bahia that I cannot really make it justice in one paragraph. It’s a deep fried ball filled with a wonderful dried shrimp stew called vatapá. The dough is made through a laborious process of mashing black eyed peas. The vendor is always a woman who dresses in a particular way, called “baiana.” They’re officially considered “national immaterial cultural heritage.” The dish is Afro-Brazilian and it has many religious connotations, so much so that some born-again Christian acarajé vendors in Salvador refuse to call their dish “acarajé,” calling it instead “Jesus balls.” I know.
2 – Tacacá
Another food institution, this time from the North. Tacacá mixes African, Portuguese and Indigenous ingredients in a bowl of happiness. It’s a complex mix of manioc juice (the broth itself takes days to prepare), dried shrimp, tapioca starch and a green vegetable called jambu that makes your mouth tingle and literally water due to the presence of the chemical spilanthol.
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It’s sold in the streets of cities in Acre, Amazonas, Pará, and Rondônia by the tacacazeira.Tacacá is not only my favourite street food, it’s probably my favourite food, period.
1 – Pastel
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No one knows for sure the true origins of pastel de feira, but the speculation is that Japanese immigrants invented this when they came to São Paulo over a century ago. It’s basically a giant deep-fried dumpling. It’s mandatory to have a pastel in the feira (farmer’s market) when you go to São Paulo. The typical “barraca de pastel” (pastel stall) is still mainly operated by Japanese-Brazilians. Twenty years ago, there were four or five kinds: cheese, ground beef, shrimp, pizza (cheese, tomato and oregano), and palm hearts, but now you can find something like 20 kinds, including chocolate. The dried cod one is to die for. Wash it down with sugar cane juice.
See when she pokes a hole in the pastel? That’s to prevent the eater from having third degree burns with the hot steam.