Although the situation is slowly changing, it has to be said that Brazil is not a vegetarian's paradise. At least, not yet. Brazilians, by and large, are carnivorous creatures, and although most large cities in Brazil do have health food stores and shops that sell organic produce, when it comes to restaurants the vegetarian variety is thin on the ground. Vegetarian tourists, especially in small locations or in places where there isn't a large tourist population, can find it hard to get a complete meal that doesn't include meat.
Almost every restaurant can dish up a plate of rice and a salad, but even the beans that are served along side the rice are likely to have been made with some sort of meat in the cooking liquid to increase the flavor. Reliable options tend to be pizza, pasta dishes with tomato sauce and some types of sushi.
For a vegetarian who is also interested in traditional Brazilian cooking, the situation is even more difficult, as most traditional main dishes rely heavily on meat or seafood to provide substance and flavor. Clearly the Brazilian meat orgy known as churrasco is out of the question, and other traditional foods like carne de sol, galinha caipira and peixada don't fit the vegetarian bill either.
dendê oil. Yet the capixaba (meaning "from Espírito Santo") moquecas have neither coconut milk, nor dendê. They are seafood stews, like in Bahia, but the stewing liquid is made from tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro, accented in color and flavor by annatto.
The recipe below, from a restaurant called Gaeta in the Espírito Santo coastal resort town of Guarapari, is one that lets vegetarians set up to the moqueca table. The centerpiece of the dish is not fish, shrimp or lobster. It is the non-sweet vegetable banana called banana-da-terra in Brazil and plantain in the English speaking world. Unlike their sweet cousins, plantains must be cooked. They share some of the flavor profile of sweet bananas, without the sugar content.
The recipe is easy to make, and plantains are increasingly available in North America and Europe, especially in cities that have a significant Latin American population. If you're a vegetarian, or wish to serve a meal for vegetarian friends that carries the flavors of Brazil, this is an excellent option. It should be served with plain white rice.
RECIPE - Plantain Moqueca (Moqueca de Banana)
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp annatto oil or powder (can substitute sweet paprika)
3 cloves garlic, smashed
6 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 cup minced cilantro
2 lbs (1 kg) very ripe plantains, peeled and cut into thick slices on the diagonal
In a large saucepan or flameproof clay casserole heat the olive oil. Mix in the annatto or paprika, then add the chopped garlic and fry for a few minutes. Do not let the garlic brown or burn. Add the chopped tomatoes, the onion, the cilantro and salt to taste. Cook for about 5-8 minutes, or until the tomato breaks down and a sauce forms. Add the banana slices, mix well, then reduce heat, cover the pan and let cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the banana slices are tender.