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One doesn’t normally think of using a cookbook for a travel guide, but there’s always an exception. My recent purchase, Rio De Janeiro: The Cookbook, was a welcome addition to my already bursting cookbook collection. I picked up this gem at my favorite neighborhood bookstore, and after flipping through the pages, I was delighted to find that the recipes came with “dicas”, or tips, on everything from where to find a feijoada feast for a weekend brunch to a recipe for creamy coconut cake to a list of local farmers’ markets. Using Chef Leticia’s cookbook as a guide, I quickly charted a map that included some of her recommendations.
Reading more about Chef Leticia in her book, I knew that we’d become instant friends. We both loved travel, indulged in languages and word games as children, and of course shared a love for Rio. When we spoke, Leticia credited her “carioca” heritage as a large influence on her culinary development. “Going to the farmers’ markets here in Rio and talking to the street vendors where they taught you about the different fruits and vegetables had a huge influence on me.”
Inspired by her local surroundings, other culinary creatives in Brasil like Chef Claude Troisgros, and publications like Gula and Food & Wine, Leticia created a cookbook that guides its readers through a tasty tour of Rio’s diverse neighborhoods. When I asked Leticia about her opinion of Rio cuisine, she said it highlights the influence of Portuguese culture in the diaspora of African, Indian, and European history that is Brazil. “You can see it in people’s faces, in the botequins, the architecture, and of course in the food.”
And so my food tour commenced in downtown Rio, known as Centro to locals. I headed to Confeitaria Colombo, a Rio institution and landmark. Confeitaria Colombo is a marvelous mixture of café, bakery, restaurant, and bar, with an emphasis on the bakery part. Upon entering this downtown destination, I quickly understood why this place was on Haute Living’s list of “Top 10 Most Beautiful Cafes in the World.” With stiff competition from mostly European listings, Confeitaria Colombo rightfully deserves its place on the list with its gilded interiors.
Over a bountiful Brazilian breakfast of cakes, cookies, cheese, and of course, coffee, I spoke with head Chef Thiago about the historic guestlist of Confeitaria Colombo, dating back to the time when Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil. This historic café received presidents from all over the globe and Thiago mentioned a recent visit by the Royal family and the Queen of England as his personal highlight.
As I marveled at the decor, Chef Thiago told the story of the cafe’s founders. “The story started with two Portuguese men – pioneers that had their mind set on creating the best pastry shop in Brazil. They brought with them the best tiles from Europe, mirrors from Belgium, and of course, pastry chefs from France.”
Surrounded by so many delicious desserts must be daunting for anyone’s diet, so I had to ask Chef Thiago what was his favorite. With a gleam in his eye, he instantly said “pastel de nata”, a traditional Portuguese dessert that has a light custard in delicate crusted cups. Having never sampled this sweet, I made a note to try it on my next visit. He went on to share how he looks forward to Christmas here at the café, when droves of families line up to take home these scrumptious sweets to share with their families.
Eager to walk off my hearty breakfast, I made my way to the National Library. Situated in the heart of Centro, with the Theatro Municipal and the National Museum of Fine Arts as its neighbors, this Library is a national treasure. Established by Dom João Pedro, who sits at the base of the stairwell, the library held more than 60,000 books at its inception, a rare case for any library, since most build their collections over time. In fact, as my guide Max pointed out, it was in the Peace Treaty of 1825 that the Portuguese Royal family sold the vast literary collection to Brazil, giving this historic site its rightful place as UNESCO’s 8th biggest national library in the world, now with over 20 million pieces.
As the collection grew over the years, the Library relocated to many homes throughout Rio before finally settling on its current location in 1910. Max, a human library himself, reflected on the library’s historic importance. “It’s a building that reminds us cariocas of a period of great change here in the city center because in the beginning of the 20th century Rio was the capital of Brazil and the main goal of the mayor was to make Rio similar to a European city. He used as his inspiration the Belle Epoque in Paris and French architecture. Examples of this are the Municipal Theater, the National Museum of Fine Arts, and other buildings along Rio Branco Avenue.”
The magnificent interior of the Library is a testament to this European influence, with structural details like Neoclassical arcs at the entrance, Corinthian columns, a stairwell imported from Germany, and French glass ceilings. Behind these architectural displays are housed a phenomenal rare books collection, whose importance goes beyond Brazil. The original printed edition of Luís de Camões’ Os Lusíadas, sits in the collection, much to the disdain of many Portuguese, Max noted with a grin. “This masterpiece is as important to the Portuguese language as Shakespeare to English, Cervantes to Spanish, or Goethe to German.”
Also housed here are original legal documents like the Lei Áurea, which abolished slavery in Brazil and was ushered into proclamation by Princess Isabel in the late 1800s, a multitude of dictionaries, including those of indigenous Brazilian languages, like Tupi-Guarani, and Yorubá, the African language that Max mentioned is very present in Brazilian Portuguese.
Wandering through the halls of the library and an exhibit of Antônio Houaiss’ contributions to the Portuguese language, I thought about the fascinating fusion of cultures that is ever-present here in Brazil. While Rio is definitely an epicenter for Brazilian culture, this large country has a vast landscape that cannot be covered in one trip. Luckily, my visa is good for a few more years.
When mentioning to Max that I had just come from the famous café, he pointed out that the same jacaranda wood that was used to make the desks and interiors of the Library was used on the mirrors of the Confeitaria Colombo. He also said, in a secretive tone that the Library houses some of the rare recipes from Portugal, which he whispered “us Brazilians are always trying to replicate in our bakeries.” When I mentioned Chef Thiago’s favorite, pastel de nata, Max gave me some more insight. “There is a patent on the name of that dessert. If it is made there in Belem, in that region, it’s called ‘pastel de Belem’. Anywhere else, it’s ‘pastel de nata’. Kind of like French champagne.” He gave a knowing smile and led me through the halls tiled with mosaics from Morocco, while we chatted about the library decor, philosophy, and Brazilian politics. We eventually agreed that no matter where you are from in the world, we are definitely living in a climate of change, and hopefully for the better.
Walking up Avenida Presidente Antonio Vargas, I stopped in the Palácio Tiradentes. A royal looking piece of architecture with its sprawling entrance, I entered not knowing anything about the place. As my guide led me through the halls, I learned that this building was originally the site of the first Republic of Brazil, back during Rio’s time as the country’s capital. Along the walls, the mosaic tiles, and in the etchings of the chairs and pillars are coffee leaves. These details, as my guide shared, were a homage to Brazil’s early ruling class, many of whom were coffee farmers.
Upon entering the main hall where current state laws are reviewed, I was immediately struck by the immense murals around the perimeter and along the ceiling. Showing different scenes from Brazil’s beginnings, my guide highlighted Pedro Álvarez Cabral, the Portuguese bandeirantes, and the French Marianne waving the flag of liberty. She poignantly pointed out that these images were a “romantic vision of Brazil’s history. It looks very peaceful, but in fact it was not.” Of course this made me think of romanticized versions of America’s pilgrims and their settling along the eastern seaboard, giving way to our Thanksgiving holiday. I guess, as Oscar Wilde wrote, sometimes art doesn’t always imitate life.
Back in Zona Sul, I was eagerly looking forward to my visit at design marvel, Fasano Hotel in Ipanema. Meeting with the hotel’s communications and marketing department for the ideally situated Rio location of this iconic hotel, I learned more about the history of designer Philippe Starck’s first project here in Brazil. Sitting poolside, which is where all meetings should take place if they offer this stunning view, they shared with me some of the unique features of Fasano. “The experience here is an extension of Rogério Fasano himself; a mirror of his personality. It’s evident in the smallest of details, with an understated luxury.”
And it truly is. From the moment you step into the lobby, you are greeted with an aura of discreet, yet superior hospitality. Designing the hotel with sustainability in mind, the repurposed pequiá wood from the Amazon is used throughout the hotel. You’ll see it in the lobby, the bedside tables, and even at the front desk, which is formed from a large log of this rare wood. The simplicity of natural materials like dark pequiá, marble, native plants, and red brick are all weaved together to provide guests with a visually appealing and comforting vibe, a true escape from Rio’s raucous scene.
With a family history well-versed in gastronomy, the Fasano experience wouldn’t be complete without a tribute to a luxurious dining experience. “It’s important for us to take food seriously, but with a ‘slow food’ manner,” the staff mused. “The restaurant, Fasano al Mare, which is a misnomer in a way, highlights an Italian Mediterranean cuisine, replete with housemade pasta dishes that contain local ingredients.” One bite of the Tortelli Di Vitelo, their signature dish, is a testament to this superb dining philosophy. Delicate folds of fresh pasta envelop tender cuts of veal, tempting your taste buds to savor every morsel of these pillows drizzled with Parmesan fondue. Chef Paolo Lavezzini’s menu draws on his expertise from award-winning restaurants in Florence, subtly influencing every element of this gastronomic gem.
While the mirrored ears, a Starck design hallmark, listened in on our conversation, I heard an anecdote about the hotel’s owner. “Rogério loves cinema and had been studying film in London; he dreamed of being a director and one of his idols was Francis Ford Coppola. After receiving a call to come back to Brazil and manage the family business, Rogério left his film career behind.” But with a stroke of serendipitous luck, Rogério would one day meet his idol when Coppola paid a visit to this famed hotel. “He was a little nervous about asking the celebrated director for an autograph, but he did and now it sits on our Hall of Fame wall just outside of the Baretto-Londra bar!” An homage to London, Rogério’s favorite city, the pub-style bar hosts both DJs and classic rock bands, with décor characteristic of British music icons. The signature Union Jack flag hangs in the background, but the colors provide a nod to Fasano’s Italian heritage.
Luckily for travelers who appreciate the Fasano philosophy, the hotel is expanding throughout Latin America. With Brazilian locations as close as Angra dos Reis and Belo Horizonte opening in the next year, and projects planned for Miami and the reopening of Uruguay’s property, travelers seeking out this “understated luxury” won’t have to look further than one of Fasano’s meticulously planned hotel experiences.
If you need souvenirs, or even a gift for yourself, just down the way is Ipanema’s shopping district, which is full of Brazilian brands: Osklen, Francesca Romana, Melissa, and of course the ubiquitous Havaianas. Depending on your budget, and how much space you have in your carry-on, you’ll be sure to find a way to support the Brazilian economy with a visit to these boutiques – gift list in hand.
Maybe you keep up on travel trends like “voluntourism”, work for a company that sponsors volunteer vacations abroad, or just have a desire to help others in need. Doing community service while traveling is an alternate lens to learn about the countries we visit. Eager to participate in Stanford’s “Beyond the Farm”, my alma mater’s annual day of community service event, I joined a Mais Caminhos event early one Saturday morning. Mais Caminhos, the community outreach arm of the language center Caminhos, organized a group of volunteers from all over the globe, many of whom are studying Portuguese at the center, to head up the street to a local school, Solar Meninos de Luz.
Solar Meninos de Luz was founded in 1991 to bring educational, health, and cultural programs to the favela neighborhoods that sit behind Ipanema, and has grown over the years, now supporting over 5,000 families. When we arrived at the school, we were greeted by Brama, a spirited soul who manages the Paulo Coelho Library. After sharing some of the history of the school, the library, and its famous donor, Brama gave us a tour of the classrooms, all lined with artwork and projects from its students. With a challenging charter before us, we began to clean and dust over 20,000 books that lined the shelves of this great community resource.
Beyond just providing an opportunity to do a bit of good for the local citizens, the Mais Caminhos event was a way for us foreigners to share travel tales and resources, as well as animated anecdotes from our struggles with learning a foreign language here in Brazil. While diligently dusting off copies of classics like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and volumes by Brazilian authors Clarice Lispector, and Paulo Coelho himself, I thought back on my own experience of living here and learning a foreign language as an adult. Life changing, it is one of my proudest accomplishments, and I’m always encouraging others to do the same. Meeting other language enthusiasts while making a positive change in this neighborhood was definitely a highlight of this trip.
Later that evening, I headed to nearby Botafogo, which has a lively mix of bars, bookstores, and oddly enough – hamburger joints. On my last visit, I ended up at Hell’s Burguer, which is always a good option. But after reading Veja’s Comer & Beber list of top hamburger spots, I had to try the famed Comuna. This first place winner has a small menu, and rightfully so, since the burgers are a meal in themselves. There’s no need for fries. Just make sure and indulge in one of their handcrafted milkshakes after you’ve had enough time to digest your food.
Botafogo is also a great neighborhood if you like to barhop. Start with the stretch of bars that are easily accessible from the metro. One of my favorites, The Boua, has a bountiful selection of beers on tap, and an accompanying menu of traditional Brazilian appetizers, but with a twist. The mandioca, linguica, and of course, batata frita, or French fries are all large enough to share. My favorite is a mixture of octopus, sausage, and potatoes, all melted together with gouda cheese in a bread bowl; something that instantly transported me to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
Also in the area is Bar Bukowski, a lively weekend-only spot where you can get a hefty dose of classic rock and sing along to your favorite Stones’ songs with the locals. For a more mellow vibe, there’s the WineHouse if you want to sip on your favorite bottle of Chilean cabernet coupled with crispy bruschetta and other small bites to pair with your glass. Their cellar has a diverse, yet appealing selection of wines from Italy, France, and some hard to find Brazilian wines, which you can sample during their weekday happy hour.
For some of us, happy hour is a time to get outside and enjoy those last hours of sunshine. If this is you, then a walk, or a bike ride, along Botafogo Bay should be on your list. Depending on how far you want to go, you can weave your way towards Flamengo, or head in the other direction towards the Yacht Club, down to Urca, and end up at Praia Vermelha. Nestled in this cove where throngs of tourists make their way up to the top of picturesque Pão de Açucar is a small beach where you can sit and see the sky light up with colorful streaks as the sun sets behind you.
My next, and final, dining destination was to Zaza’s Bistro, a colorful restaurant that makes their eating experience a full sensory adventure. With its quirky decor, Zaza’s envelops you in a tropical version of a Tim Burton movie set, all while waiting for your highly anticipated meal. The Gilson Martins placemats, gilded metal flowers, and inspiring quotes painted on the walls are all Instagram-worthy, and enough distraction while you wait for each course.
What’s unique about Zaza’s, and makes it hard to get a same-day reservation, is the attention to detail with each plate. The menu sources local, organic ingredients, often changing their menu from week to week, and infuses international flavors into traditional Brazilian dishes.
I started with an inventive appetizer of smoked octopus samosas served with a sweet chili marmalade, and paired these tasty starters with their “Soft Flora” drink, a delicate blend of mango, mint, coconut water, and tonic – the perfect refresher for a warm evening. But Zaza’s drink menu is worth a second glance; they artfully blend Brazilian fruits and their house favorite, Absolut vodka, to provide the perfect accompaniment to each of your courses. And definitely save room for dessert. If you can’t choose just one from the luscious list, opt for the chef’s degustation menu where you’ll be able to sample each of their delicious offerings.
As I sat there enjoying each morsel, I thought back to my conversation with Chef Leticia and eagerly anticipated returning home to try some of her recipes. “Open your mind to new cuisines. I would love for people everywhere to integrate Brazilian cuisine into the mainstream. Shop local and eat global – that’s what I’m trying to show in my book.” Looking forward to planning my next dinner party menu, I recalled her advice about throwing a successful one: “Plan and do as much ahead of time as possible – that way you have more time to spend with friends!”