Some time ago, a reader asked me what to do in São Paulo. I recommended him Korean, Japanese, Indian, Greek and Jewish restaurants, but didn’t say a word about traditional Brazilian venues.
I once read a discussion thread for foreigners living in Brazil, about Brazilian food. They were generally displeased, calling it bland. The fact is that I myself don’t eat or cook Brazilian food very often.
So, is Brazilian food bland? I’m not talking about specialty dishes as feijoada and churrasco, but everyday meals. l’ll take in consideration my experience as a middle-class Center-Southerner Brazilian - Northeastern food can be very spicy, and people there still lunch at home.
Brazil was until very recently a mostly rural country of intense manual labor. This reflects in traditional Brazilian food being very caloric, heavy on starch and fat. So that is very common for today Brazilians not to eat “Brazilian” most of the time, specially at dinner. Most workers will take lunch at the company or nearby restaurants, where Brazilian dishes are an optional part of the menu. Dinner often consists in a sandwich meal.
However, until the 80’s it was still common to have lunch at home, and to take both meals as a complete Brazilian rice-and-beans course. My mom used to prepare the meals in that way.
Seasonings in Central-Southern cuisine are far mild compared to other cuisines, as Mexican and Northeastern Brazilian. Salt, however, is prominent, in cured meats and just about everything. Pepper is a divisive matter - homemade dishes are not commonly seasoned with pepper, instead you have to add it at your own discretion. In restaurants, hot dishes come with warnings on the menu.
Aside from the calorie issue with rice and beans, meat tend to be overcooked, more so if pork. Previous generations have learned to cook this way as a precaution against tapeworms - a risk that is not anymore present, but old habits die hard.
In sum, don’t expect anything too exotic or spicy from traditional Central-Southern Brazilian food. Everything is bland on spices, salty, starchy, fatty and somewhat overcooked, but can be interesting if you get to it without false expectations.
If you want to discover what that kind of Brazilian cuisine tastes like, I recommend anything from a Minas Gerais-style (mineiro) restaurant or two typical dishes: virado a paulista (pictured) and barreado. In my opinion, those represent the simplicity of homemade Central-Southern Brazilian foodstuff - something to be appreciated, if not for every day.