Saturday, June 12, 2010

You Say Esfiha, and I Say Esfirra......

Whether you spell it "esfiha" or "esfirra", there are two things you should know about this Brailian snack-food with Middle Eastern origins. First, it's one of the most popular and well-known snacks and/or fastfood items in Brazil, and millions are eaten every day. Second, no matter which of the two spelling you choose, the pronunciation is the same, since "rr" in Portuguese is pronounced like the letter "h." Consequently, "esfiha" and "esfirra" are both pronounced "ess-FEE-ha".

The esfiha (my preferred spelling) was brought to Brazil from the Middle East by the large immigrant communities from Lebanon and Syria, most of whom settled in São Paulo. From there it spread throughout the entire country. An esfiha is a member of the "flatbread-pizza" family, found round the world. It is basically a round of leavened bread spread with any number of ingredients and served either open (like a pizza) or closed (like a calzone). The spicing and ingredients bear evidence of the esfiha's Middle Eastern origins, with ground meats, cumin, onions, a touch of cinnamon being common ingredients to fill an esfiha. There are many other versions, including ingredients like chicken, eggplant, eggs and, of course, cream cheese.

In Brazilian cities and towns, esfihas are available at lunch stands, snack bars, bars, and even in fast food restaurants. Brazil is home to a chain of Arabian-style fast food restaurants called Habib's, which claims to being the world's largest chain of Arabian fast food. Habib's signature dish (it's Big Mac as it were) is the esfiha - served open style and selling currently for the loss-leader price of R$0.49 . That's about USD $0.25).

Like most snack foods, esfihas vary in quality and some are pretty bad, especially if they've been sitting in a warmer for hours or days. But when they are freshly made, with care, they make a wonderful meal-on-the-go. Just down the street from my home is an Arabian restaurant called Nilo Express and it makes wonderful esfiha. They are made to order, and are normally the closed style. The restaurant has a large variety available, including esfihas such as ground beef, ricotta, sausage, sausage and cream cheese, escarole with mozzarella, escarole with bacon, chicken, chicken with cheddar, tuna, provolone, four cheese, carne do sol, palm heart, and palm heart with mozzarella. They don't cost R$0.49, but they also don't cost a whole lot more, and they are, to my mind, much better than what's on offer at Habib's.

Esfiha is another example of the cultural diversity to be found in Brazilian food. From the souks of Damascus and Aleppo to the beaches and streets of Brazil, esfiha has found a new home in the New World.


  1. I lived in Sao Paulo for a year in 2007 and one of the things that I miss most is the food. I love the esfiha and kibbeh and I also miss pizza con catupuiry! Do you know of a recipe for esfha?? I live in Canada and would love to try and recreate it for my fiance. :)

  2. Hi - I'll try to track down an authentic recipe and post it sometime next week.

    Thanks for reading Flavors of Brazil! (Sorry about the saudades for comida paulista...)


  3. Oi!
    My family is from Beiruit, some are in Brasil.
    My wife is from Brasil too.
    I did a step-by-step showing how we make these, with Turkey now instead of beef or lamb.

  4. Thanks, Mark. I don't think that esfirra with turkey exists yet in Brazil, but it should!

    Happy Holidays,

  5. Tenho saudades também. Por favor compartilha o receito. Abraço.