When traveling abroad, people often ask me how difficult it is to be vegan in Brazil. I think the question probably comes from a picture of Brazilians as meat-gobbling people who spend their time barbecuing or lunching in massive steakhouses, like our Argentinian neighbors do. While there is truth to that – Brazilians do love barbecuing and do go to steakhouses a lot, unfortunately (Brazil appears at 11 in this list of meat consumption per country)- the Brazilian diet is, nonetheless, much more diverse than some people imagine.
It is impossible to say how easy it is for a vegan traveler in Brazil because of the sheer size of the country and the regional differences. Being vegan in the southeast is quite different from being vegan in the north, and it will also vary from city to country.
My stock answer to the question of regarding being vegan in Brazil is: “I find it really easy”. If you cook from scratch, you are in for a treat in this country. Street food markets in Brazil offer a huge variety of food, so the best way to be vegan in Brazil is to be a health food vegan and not a vegan who relies on processed, industrialized food, which is quite expensive in the country. Brazilian markets sell a huge variety of fruit, veggies and grains, and unlike more developed countries, raw, fresh food is the more affordable section of the supermarket.
Granted, people who are travelling are not necessarily interested in what they can cook, so let’s get straight to the real-life tips for those who are just visiting and want to make sure they can find something vegan to eat. Below are five tips that should help the vegan traveler get by in a country where being vegan can be a bliss or hit-and-miss, depending where you are.
‘Quilo’ or ‘self-service’ restaurants’
Back in the 1980s, ‘restaurantes a quilo’ or ‘self-services’ offered a new, practical alternative for office workers who wanted to save time during their lunch break. Now they are to be found everywhere in the country. The idea is simple: customers walk in, take a plate, help themselves, weigh their food and order drinks on the side, if they like. It is streamlined and economical, since customers only pay for what they actually eat. Best of all, these restaurants offer a huge variety of food, including plenty of vegan options. Remember the basic food in Brazil is rice and beans (so much so that the equivalent of the expression ‘nuts and bolts’ in Brazil is ‘rice and beans’!) so you will invariably find rice (brown included), beans, roasted vegetables and a very decent selection of salads, among many other options. Best of all, your bill will be fairly small, since vegetables and greens tend to weigh less.
Juice shops and coconut
Another great and colorful fixture of street life in Brazil is the juice shops that can be found in many parts of the country. These tropical fruit paradises ( the ones in Rio de Janeiro are particularly attractive) offer a mind-boggling variety of fruit juice types, in various combinations. Some of the juice combinations can be quite filling so if you are having a busy day, you can live off fruit juice with some nuts you can get in any supermarket.
The whole world has fallen in love with the earthy flavor of açaí berries. Highly caloric, this ‘superfood’ also contains iron, protein, fatty acids, calcium etc. It is as Brazilian as it comes: it became a staple food in floodplain areas in the 18th century and its name comes from the Tupi language spoken by indigenous people from what is now Brazil. Açaí shops are easy to come by and the sorbet can also be found in non-specialist ice-cream parlors and ‘lanchonetes’, the name for snack bars in Brazil. It is a great alternative if you can’t find a vegan restaurant. Adds lots of nuts and fruit, such as banana and strawberry, and you have a fairly complete meal for a bargain (around US$4).
Sugarcane juice bars (“caldo de cana”)
These are very popular, cheap places where sugarcane is pushed through grinders to produce fresh sugarcane juice. Typically, the juice is served cold with sugar cubes in it. It is a glucose bomb, full of iron and can keep you going for hours. Sugarcane juice shops often sell fried pastries called ‘pastéis’ and some of them can be vegan, although the oil where they are fried might have been used to fry stuff with meat in it.
Drinking coconut juice has always been a thing in Brazil, but the number of kiosks selling them has grown significantly in recent times. Coconut juice is great to hydrate and it is also quite filling since it contains several minerals. Usually the customer has a choice to buy the whole fruit, in which case you can ask the seller to cut it open so you can eat the delicious white flesh inside. This way you can have a fairly complete raw vegan meal for around US$1.
With these tips, your vegan trip to Brazil should be fairly painless and quite delicious. Of course, if you are in a big city, you can use Happy Cow to find the nearest vegan eaterie. But no matter where you go, you will likely be able to stick to your veganism without major problems, and in many places with no problem at all.