There are many things to love about Brazilian cuisine. The mix of African, Indigenous, and Portuguese cultures is reflected in the wide variety of flavors in Brazilian food.
Though it is said there is no one cuisine of Brazil, there are several dishes that travelers should be able to find wherever they are in Brazil. One of those is pão de queijo (pronounced “pown de kayzho”), a savory cheese pastry that is hard to find outside of Brazil. Inside of Brazil, however, they are everywhere. Every coffee shop, lanchonete (snack bar), or padaria (bread bakery) will offer a bowl full of them, and it’s a rare traveler who doesn’t ask for more.
These airy rounds of golden dough mixed with queijo Minas, a cheese from the Brazilian state of Minas Girais, are delicious any time of day. Brazilians typically eat them for breakfast with coffee, or later in the day as a snack. You can find them at bakeries or sold by street vendors.
The pastry is round and puffy and light as air. When you bite into it, there’s a bit of crunch, then a toothsome pull of savory cheese unlike anything from home, which only adds to the feeling of saudade (a sort of nostalgic longing) when you return home and can’t find anything to replicate it.
The trick is to use a tapioca flour, sometimes marketed as tapioca starch, which gives it an almost rubbery mouth-feel, not unlike Japanese mochi. This flour is prepared by soaking grated yucca or cassava root – also known as manioc – allowing the starch to fall to the bottom of the bowl, removing the root to dry, and then scraping the dried starch from the bottom of the bowl. It’s a rather tedious process, but you’ll be glad someone did it, because the result is a unique consistency that is crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and full of cheesy goodness all the way through.
The history of these cheesy rolls is interesting in that it does not involve cheese at all. Early on, the slaves who would grate, soak, and dry the cassava root noticed that there was starch left at the bottom of the bowls they used. Not wanting to let anything go to waste, they scraped the bowls and formed balls of starchy manioc to eat. It was only after the advent of dairy farming in Brazil that cheese and milk were added to create the delicacy we know today as pão de queijo.
Most Brazilians either buy their pão de queijo fresh from a bakery or purchase a mix from the grocery store, but it is not difficult to make them from scratch. Most of the U.S.-made tapioca flour is on the sweet side, which will be a bit different from what you find in Brazil. The flour you need is called polvilho azedo, or sour starch. It is available in the U.S. at Brazilian markets and through Amazon.com. It is difficult if not impossible to find queijo Minas outside of Brazil, however, so you might try using parmesan or mozzarella cheese, or a queso fresco.
For the real thing, however, there is nothing like tucking into a basket of freshly baked pão de queijo in a coffee shop on a side street in Brazil. Muito bom! (Very good!)
Where to find it in Rio de Janeiro
There are several restaurant chains in Brazil that make a good pão de queijo. Remember that they are best when fresh out of the oven. Casa do Pão de Queijo, Rei do Mate and Mega Matte can be found all over Brazil.
Armazém do Café at Nossa Senhora da Paz square in Ipanema
Cultivar Brazil in Santa Teresa – Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno 124
Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro
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Paige Conner-Totaro is a freelance writer from Alexandria, VA.