Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rodízio - The Way of the Churrascaria

If you were to look up the Portuguese word rodízio in my Michaelis Portuguese-English dictionary you'd find the following definitions:

1 water wheel. 2 shift, relay work, scheduling of work. 3 turn, rotation. eles trabalham em rodízio / they work in turns. 4 caster (wheel). 5 shady deal, sharp practices. 6 coloq gossip, plot, intrigue. 7 alternation of people, facts or situations. 8 bras a system of service in certain restaurants where barbecued meats or pizzas are offered abundantly, according to the client's taste. 

Clearly, of all these definitions, it's number 8 that most concerns Flavors of Brazil (although Flavors of Brazil also likes number 6). Rodízio is the system used in most churrascarias, restaurants that feature a huge number of grilled meats, to get their products from the grill to the diners' plates. I thought it would be interesting and instructive for Flavors of Brazil to learn a bit more about churrascarias and rodízio (incidentally, the word is pronounced ho-DEE-zee-oo) and pass that knowledge on to readers of this blog.

In recent years rodízio-style churrascarias have become Brazil's most successful exportation in the world of restaurants, and today churrascarias can be found from Paris, to New York, to Las Vegas, Singapore, Tokyo and Vancouver. The high-end Brazilian churrascaria chain Fogo de Chão, founded in Porto Alegre in 1979, now has more branches in the USA than it does in Brazil, by the score of 16 to 6. The typical churrascaria offering of a huge salad bar plus an unlimited quantity of grilled meats has proven to be internationally popular, just as it is in Brazil.

Although the Brazilian style of grilling meats, churrasco, is age-old, the rodízio-style churrascaria is a relatively new concept, and dates back at most 50 or 60 years, to the middle of the last century. But even though the concept is not old, it's origins are already lost in time, and no one is exactly sure how, when and where the idea of having troops of waiters carrying meat-laden spears wandering around the restaurant slicing off pieces of meats directly on to customers' plates originated. Many have claimed the honor of being the first to introduce rodízio but no one has been able to establish a definitive claim. Certainly the style originated in truckstop restaurants along the interstate highways in Southeast Brazil, in the populous states of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Paraná. And certainly, the proprietors of those restaurants came from the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, where churrasco originated. Other than that all is speculation and/or self-promotion.

Vilma and Albino Ondarotto, 1975
The Association of Churrascarias of the State of São Paulo (acronmym: ACHUESP) has researched this topic and has formally crowned Churrascaria 477, located in Jacupiranga, SP, as the originator of rodízio, a title that the restaurant proudly claims to this day. Legend has it that on one particularly busy day when the restaurant was full of pilgrims visiting the nearby shrine of Bom Jesus de Iguape,an overstressed waiter began mixing up all his orders, serving the wrong meat to the wrong diner. The owner, Albino Ondaratto, to alleviate the confusion, told all the waiters to grab one of the large skewers full of meat from the grill and offer meat to any and all. Many other food historians, however, hotly dispute both the crown and the legend. The only thing that is certain is that Churrascaria 477 is still open in its original location in Jacupiranga and apparently does a nice rodízio.

In the next post here on Flavors of Brazil, we'll discuss exactly how rodízio works and offer an etiquette guide to churrascarias. There are unwritten rules of behavior in rodízio , both for waiters and for customers, and Flavors of Brazil is here to prevent its readers from mistakenly behaving poorly next time they visit a churrascaria, whether in Brazil or anywhere else in the world.

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