A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil’s Culinary Capital
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Pão de Queijo - The Beloved Baked Cheese Bites
No trip to São Paulo is complete without trying the city's iconic snack, pão de queijo. These bite-sized cheese breads are a staple at breakfast tables, bakeries, and restaurants across the city. Their delicious flavor and texture have made them beloved by Paulistanos and visitors alike.
The origins of pão de queijo stretch back to the 17th century. During this period, slaves from Africa and indigenous locals in what is now Minas Gerais state developed a recipe using cassava flour, cheese, eggs, and milk. This cheap, hearty snack became popular among mine workers who needed an easy meal during their long shifts. As many mine workers later migrated to São Paulo, they brought pão de queijo with them.
Today, pão de queijo are ubiquitous in São Paulo. Bakeries start whipping up fresh batches in the early morning hours so that commuters can grab them on their way to work. At Padaria Brasil, located just a few blocks from Praça da Sé cathedral, you'll often see a line out the door as locals queue up for warm pão de queijo straight from the oven.
The best pão de queijo feature a crispy exterior that gives way to an interior with a soft, chewy, almost fluffy texture. Unlike a dense bread roll, the interior has an airy feel and pulls apart into strands, thanks to the cassava flour. The cheese provides a subtle salty savoriness, while small sugar crystals sprinkled on top provide a hint of sweetness to balance out the snack.
What else is in this post?
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Pão de Queijo - The Beloved Baked Cheese Bites
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Feijoada - The National Dish of Black Beans & Meat
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Virado à Paulista - A São Paulo Twist on Bean Stew
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Bauru - The Birthplace of Brazil's Favorite Sandwich
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Mortadella Sandwich - A São Paulo Staple Since the 1930s
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Brigadeiro - Brazil's Famous Chocolate Truffle
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Pastel - Deep-Fried Street Food Packets
- A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Esfiha - Middle Eastern Flatbread Pockets
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Feijoada - The National Dish of Black Beans & Meat
No trip to São Paulo is complete without indulging in Brazil's national dish, feijoada. This hearty black bean and meat stew is the ultimate comfort food, blending flavors from Portuguese, African, and Brazilian culinary traditions. In São Paulo, feijoada is a staple menu item at restaurants across the city.
The origins of feijoada stretch back to the days of slavery in Brazil. Plantation owners would often serve their slaves leftover scraps of pork and beans, which the slaves would simmer into a hearty stew. Over time, feijoada evolved into a more elaborate dish as Africans, Portuguese, and Brazilians incorporated additional ingredients. Today, a proper feijoada features black beans cooked low and slow with a variety of salted pork cuts like ribs, sausage, and trotters.
At many restaurants in São Paulo, weekend lunch service revolves around feijoada. Locals gather for feijoada on Saturdays or Sundays as both a tasty meal and a social experience. Popular spots like Bar do Mineiro serve feijoada buffet-style, with patrons grabbing as much stew, rice, collard greens, orange slices, and farofa (toasted cassava flour) as they can hold on a single plate. The lively atmosphere adds to the enjoyment as large groups chat and laugh over caipirinhas and copious amounts of feijoada.
While casual spots offer tasty versions, feijoada can also be an upscale affair. At places like Figueira Rubaiyat, Brazil's national dish receives a gourmet twist with higher-end ingredients like acarajé bean fritters and vinagrete. A live samba band provides the soundtrack as patrons savor the complex flavors of the stew: the tender, pull-apart pork contrasting with the hearty black beans and smoky hints from the sausage. Figueira Rubaiyat even allows diners to customize their feijoada by choosing preferred pork cuts.
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Virado à Paulista - A São Paulo Twist on Bean Stew
While feijoada may be Brazil's most famous bean stew, São Paulo puts its own spin on the bean stew concept with virado à paulista. This regional specialty swaps out feijoada's black beans for creamier white kidney beans, adding new depths of flavor. As with feijoada, virado à paulista offers a wealth of textures, from the tender beans to twists of spaghetti and fluffy white rice. It provides the perfect fuel on an early morning exploring São Paulo's sprawling cityscape.
The origins of virado à paulista stretch back to the early 20th century Italian immigration boom in São Paulo. New Italian residents brought along their love of bean stews similar to minestrone. As Italians shared cooking tips and traditions with Brazilians, a new fusion stew emerged, blending Brazilian ingredients with Italian preparation techniques. Locals often served virado à paulista at the start of a large meal since the beans provided healthy energy to fuel the upcoming courses.
At Birosca Bahia in the Jardins neighborhood, chef Rodrigo Oliveira puts a creative spin on virado à paulista while staying true to its roots. His version stars plump white beans simmered from dried, achieving a perfect just-tender texture without any graininess. Tiny squares of orzo and thin spaghetti provide variety amidst the creamy beans. Shredded greens lend a subtle bitterness to balance the starchiness of the pasta and beans. And smoky jerked beef brings deep, savory undertones reminiscent of the Italian pancetta often used in the stew. A dollop of vibrant orange farofa (toasted manioc flour) atop each bowl provides color and crunch.
Oliveira's innovative approach has earned rave reviews, with locals and tourists alike lining up out the door. Patrons eagerly dig into steaming bowls of virado à paulista during the breakfast and lunch rush. The hearty portions ensure visitors have plenty of fuel for exploring São Paulo's dynamic art galleries, museums, and historic buildings. Oliveira also offers smaller tapas-style portions of virado à paulista for evenings when patrons want a light nosh with their caipirinhas.
While Oliveira's version may be reigning king at the moment, you can sample quality virado à paulista across São Paulo. At the bustling Mercado Municipal, locals recommend Raful Restaurant which serves stick-to-your-ribs bowls piled high with beans, kale, pork rinds, and sausage. For a grab-and-go option, Via Gradi whisks up virado à paulista withmeticulously cooked beans, homemade sausage, and roasted garlic. Their location in Jardins makes it easy to grab a warming bowl during a day of window shopping.
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Bauru - The Birthplace of Brazil's Favorite Sandwich
Nestled in the interior of São Paulo state, the city of Bauru holds an outsized influence on Brazilian food culture as the birthplace of one of the country’s most iconic sandwiches. While Bauru itself is a modest agricultural hub of just 350,000 residents, foodies across Brazil pay homage to the town’s creation back in the 1930s – the Bauru sandwich. This tasty concoction of roast beef, melted cheese, tomato, and pickle on a French roll has earned a cult following across São Paulo and the nation.
The origins of Bauru’s namesake sandwich stretch back over eight decades, though its exact creator remains disputed. According to some accounts, a teenager named Casemiro Pinto Neto invented the sandwich at the Ponto Chic cafe in Bauru in the 1930s. However, descendants of restaurant owner Pedro Polachini claim he crafted the original Bauru sandwich. While the true inventor may be lost to history, Bauru solidified its reputation as the sandwich’s birthplace.
Today, Bauru natives express pride that their modest town inspired one of Brazil’s most iconic and beloved snacks. “When people hear I’m from Bauru, the first thing they ask about is the sandwich,” says university student Henrique Melo. Locals suggest visitors in Bauru make a pilgrimage to Ponto Chic, which still serves piping-hot Bauru sandwiches spilling over with ingredients. Tourists can sit at the same counter where the first Bauru sandwich emerged over 80 years ago.
Beyond Bauru, the distinctive sandwich appears on menus at bars, cafes, and lanchonetes across São Paulo. Paulistanos frequently enjoy Bauru sandwiches at casual spots like Lanche Dino, whose version overflows with juicy lucban tomatoes and pungent Catupiry cheese. Upscale restaurants also pay homage - at Provocateur Bar e Lounge in Jardins, chef Daniel Katsurayama elevates the Bauru to gourmet status with artisanal French bread and dry-aged Angus roast beef.
While restaurants put their own spin on the sandwich, an authentically-constructed Bauru adheres to a strict formula developed in the original. First, the base must be a soft white French roll lightly toasted for crunch. Next, thin slices of tender roast beef get piled high. The key topping is a thick slice of melted mozzarella or provolone cheese, adding decadence. Sliced ripe tomato and dill pickle slices provide moisture, acidity, and crunch. Finally, the top bun gets placed and the eager eater digs in.
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Mortadella Sandwich - A São Paulo Staple Since the 1930s
While plenty of Paulistano sandwiches have gained fame, none claims the historic legacy of the iconic mortadella sandwich. This budget-friendly snack has nourished locals young and old for generations with its irresistible combination of creamy mortadella, zippy olives, and gooey cheese. Even as trendy lunch spots come and go, traditional mortadella sandwiches remain a staple that connects residents to São Paulo’s culinary roots.
The mortadella sandwich traces its origins to the early 20th century influx of Italian immigrants to São Paulo. These immigrants brought along their love of mortadella – the iconic Italian cured pork product speckled with chunks of fat. Street vendors in Italian neighborhoods like Bixiga soon began selling sandwiches stuffed with the recognizable pink mortadella as an affordable, filling meal for factory workers and new arrivals.
Over the decades, mortadella sandwiches gained recognition across the socioeconomic spectrum, appearing everywhere from humble corner bars to upscale cafes. Customization also evolved as locals incorporated preferred fillings like provolone cheese and tart olives. Today, you’ll find Paulistanos across the city enjoying mortadella sandwiches layered with melty cheese or piquant olives tucked between mortadella slices for bursts of briny flavor.
For an authentic old-school mortadella sandwich, head to homey Formosa Bar e Mercearia in Bixiga. Their legendary version features two thick slabs of mortadella fresh from the deli counter, along with a generous hunk of mozzarella sliced right off the wheel. Regulars chat, debate, and joke in Italian as they chow down at Formosa’s worn wooden tables just as previous generations did decades ago.
Conversely, those seeking a contemporary twist can visit Eataly in Oscar Freire, where Chef Alessandra Montagnese whips up gourmet mortadella panini with artisanal focaccia, housemade giardiniera, and silky burrata. The familiar mortadella flavor shines through elevated accompaniments.
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Brigadeiro - Brazil's Famous Chocolate Truffle
No celebration or gathering in Brazil feels complete without a batch of brigadeiros close at hand. These bite-sized chocolate truffle candies encapsulate the sweet soul of Brazilian culture. Their rich chocolate intensity belies brigadeiros' humble origins. This no-frills sweet treat was crafted to spread joy on even the most meager budget.
The origins of brigadeiro stretch back to World War II and one cook's determination to lift spirits in difficult times. As Rio de Janeiro faced shortages and rationing during the war, homemaker Heloisa Nabuco de Oliveira sought an affordable treat to serve guests. She concocted the first brigadeiros by combining condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter, and sprinkles, forming the mixture into small balls. The truffle's simplicity and rich chocolate flavor proved a hit, offering a brief escape from the austerity of war.
Oliveira named her creation after Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, a popular political candidate in the first post-war election. As his campaign slogan stated citizens should "support the brigadeiro that is a sweetest," Oliveira's truffles became linked to Gomes as brigadeiros.
Today, brigadeiros remain a staple at parties across economic lines in Brazil. When times are tight, Brazilians whip up bare-bones brigadeiros with just condensed milk, cocoa, and butter. But during good times, cooks get creative, infusing brigadeiros with ingredients like condensed milk fudge, chocolate sprinkles, or Oreo crumbs. Their diminutive size makes them easy to transport and share at large gatherings.
At the classic restaurant Bar do Alemão in Bixiga, revelers line up for trays laden with brigadeiros in flavors like pistachio, caramel, and banana. The rich confections offer bursts of indulgence between caipirinhas and bites of feijoada. For a touch of whimsy, Bar do Alemão tops certain brigadeiros with tiny candy dinosaurs or pink hearts.
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Pastel - Deep-Fried Street Food Packets
One of the best parts of exploring São Paulo is getting to sample authentic local street food, and nothing satisfies hungry wanderers quite like pastel. These deep-fried pastry pockets packed with fillings encapsulate the classic Brazilian tradition of salgados - portable savory snacks meant to be eaten on-the-go. Hot, crispy, and deliciously greasy, pastéis provide the perfect energy boost while seeing the sights or bar-hopping late night.
The origins of pastel stretch back to the 16th century arrival of Portuguese colonizers and enslaved West Africans in Brazil. These groups brought their recipes for filled pastries that evolved into pastéis. Over the centuries, pastéis spread from street stalls to corner bars and cafes as a popular snack, developing distinctive Brazilian flavor profiles. Today, the endless varieties of pastéis mirror São Paulo's cultural diversity.
At the legendary Pastel Estadão in Centro, you’ll find locals lined up out the door waiting to get their pastel fix. This no-frills shop has been serving up piping hot pastéis for over three decades. Their most iconic options include heart-of-palm pastel with its zesty, herbaceous filling, and the pastel de queijo de coalho featuring molten white cheese. The sheer size of Estadão’s pastéis, bulging with fillings, makes them ultra-satisfying. Just be ready to get messy, as the pastries gush steam and oil when you bite in.
For a contemporary twist, FoodPark SP in Pinheiros applies chef-driven creativity to pastéis while using homemade, high-quality ingredients. Ricardo Silva applies his fine dining background to options like the pastel de rabada, with its supple oxtail meat slow-cooked for 12 hours. The pastel de pernil de cordeiro showcases delicate shredded lamb draped in mint chimichurri. At just R$12 each, FoodPark SP makes gourmet pastéis accessible. Customers grab napkins and cold Brahma beers, then huddle together on picnic benches devouring hot pastéis at this casual beer garden.
A Taste of São Paulo: 5 Iconic Dishes You Have to Try in Brazil's Culinary Capital - Esfiha - Middle Eastern Flatbread Pockets
While many of São Paulo’s iconic dishes stem from Portuguese, Italian, and Afro-Brazilian influences, the city also boasts deep Middle Eastern roots. Since the late 19th century, waves of Lebanese and Syrian immigrants have settled in the diverse metropolis, leaving their mark through cuisine. Today, flavors of the Levant permeate São Paulo, from shawarma rotisseries sizzling on every other corner to markets stuffed with imported ingredient. But no Middle Eastern transplant has integrated itself into local culture quite like the esfiha. These chewy flatbread pockets packed with seasoned ground meat offer a satisfying snack or light meal.
Esfiha’s origins trace back to the eastern Mediterranean, where similar filled flatbreads appear in Ottoman, Greek, and Persian cuisines. As immigrants from the region settled in São Paulo’s Bom Retiro district, they brought along their recipes for lamb-filled flatbreads. Vendors in Bom Retiro sold these early esfihas fresh from the oven to factory workers on their lunch breaks. Over the decades, esfihas spread citywide, integrating elements of Brazilian cuisine. For instance, pork and chicken fillings became more prominent as tasty, budget-friendly alternatives to pricier lamb. Local bakeries also developed signature twists – Catupiry cream cheese fillings, provolone additions, and toppings of vinagrete salad or hot sauce.
For Paulistanos today, esfihas offer a quick, portable snack sold everywhere from corner shops to five-star hotels. Their diversity allows customization for any craving. Carnivores line up at Gazela Grill in nearby Embu das Artes for off-menu esfihas oozing sumptuous slices of picanha steak layered with catupiry cheese. At Santo Grao coffeehouse, vegetarians can sink their teeth into fried eggplant esfiha with lemony tabbouleh. You can even find sweet esfihas for dessert, like Kasato’s rich Nutella and banana option