Brazil might best be known for its beef, barbecue and slow-cooked stews, but the country nevertheless has more than 5,000 miles of coastline and the extensive Amazon River system, which provide access to productive marine and freshwater fishing grounds. As a result, fish such as red snapper, cod and snook feature abundantly in the national diet. As with all Brazilian cuisine, however, variations across the country’s vast area are considerable.
Almost on a par with feijoada as the Brazilian national dish, Moqueca de Peixe is a rich, creamy fish stew most closely associated with the northern coastal state of Bahia. Brazil’s counterpart to bouillabaisse or chowder combines onions, garlic and cilantro with tomato and coconut milk, along with whatever fish is available. Typically, red snapper or cod steps into the breach, with shrimp included when available. Moqueca is usually served in a covered clay pot to seal in the aromas, rounded off with lemon juice and paprika as a final flourish. In Espirito Santo state, annatto seeds add a vivid red hue for Moqueca Capixaba, while the Bahia version adds palm oil for flavor. Casquinha de Siri includes almost identical ingredients, but this time freshwater or saltwater blue crab substitutes for the fish. The crab and aromatics mixture is steeped in coconut milk and grilled in the crab shell.
Due to the historic connection with Portugal, Brazil places a heavy emphasis on salt cod, or bacalhau, particularly for festive dishes around Christmas and Easter. As in Portugal, flattened salt cod stacks adorn the outside of many Brazilian grocery stores, while cod fish cakes, bolinhas de bacalhau, are commonly served in bars as an appetizer. Heartier dishes include bacalhau com pure de grao, which pairs the fish’s saltiness with a chickpea puree, and bacalhau a gomes de sa, a luxurious dish of cod, eggs and olives between layers of potato. Although bacalhau traditionally started out as an affordable staple, often served with humble mashed potatoes with a simple cheese gratin, the increasing rarity of cod has elevated the fish to a gourmet footing, served in fashionable restaurants around Rio and Sao Paulo.
Thanks to the Amazon River, Brazil can draw on freshwater fish stock as varied as the Atlantic Ocean’s saltwater catch. However, as Frommer’s notes, the plethora of indigenous languages means that the same fish can have several different names along the mighty river’s length. Tambaqui, also known as pacu, is one of the more exceptional species. A large, fatty fish that feeds on fruit falling into the water, the tambaqui yields sturdy short ribs that can be marinated in lemon, thyme and garlic for grilling. Because of its ability to subsist on low levels of oxygen, the tambaqui is increasingly reared as a farm fish. Amazonian species such as pirarucu, surubim and dourado require little preparation, and are often wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over coals. One of the region’s signature appetizers is piranha soup, heavy with hot peppers and thickened with manioc flour.
It might be an endangered fish species in South Florida, but robalo, also known as snook, features widely in Brazilian cuisine. Light in flavor but with a dense, robust texture, robalo can simply be marinated in olive oil and sprinkled with thyme, ready for grilling over coals. On the street or around the coast, the sight of fish kebabs grilling over makeshift stands is common. The kebabs are usually made with sturdy fillets such as tuna or cod marinated in orange juice. Shrimp kebabs, marinated in coconut milk and wedged between onion and hot and sweet peppers, are also an international delicacy that Brazilians take for granted. Some Brazilian fish dishes are more of an acquired taste. In season 3 of the television series Parts Unknown, world-renowned chef and author Anthony Bourdain featured blowfish, a Brazilian dish similar to Japanese fugu, which has to be prepared by a specially trained chef since it contains potentially lethal toxins.