Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Slumming It - Dining in a Favela

Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro
The Portuguese word favela has come to mean, in English as well as Portuguese, the type of slum that prevails in poor neighborhoods in all major cities in Brazil. In a typical favela, city services are non-existant or are pirated, houses are simple homemade brick structures, commerce is rudimentary, and in Rio de Janeiro, up til recently, gangs of drug traffickers are de facto the only law.

Rio's favelas are the most well known in Brazil first because Rio is Brazil's primary tourist destination and second because they are so visible. Rio's unique geographical and topographical structure means that the richer neighborhoods carpet the flat land stretching back from the world-famous beaches, while the favelas are perched right behind them, precariously clinging to almost perpendicular mountainsides. Because of this, neighborhoods of million dollar homes have a view of the sea out of their front window and often a view of a nearby favela out the back window. And residents of the vertical favelas often have the best views in town.

In the past two years, in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, Rio's politicians and civic government have used Brazil's military police forces to "re-occupy" many of the city's favelas, which had ignored for decades and left to the drug gangs to run. In favela after favela an initial police invasion began the process, followed by the return of municipal servies such as garbage collection, establishment of governmental offices and restoration of municipal water and energy services. The term used for this process is pacification.

Up to today, the government has had some major successes in pacifying various favelas, although their ability to root out drug-related crime in the long run remains to be seen. Nonetheless, in those favelas which have undergone the process, pacification has meant a reduction in levels of intimidation and violence, an increase in property values, and a overall reduction in tension.

One ancillary effect of pacification has been that favelas, which were previously strictly "no-go"zones for non-residents, are now becoming accessible to non-favela inhabitants, residents of Rio and tourists alike. Several tour companies now offer favela tours, as do community-based non-profit organizations. Curiousity is part of the attraction, of course, but there are those who realize that the favelas, poor and crime-ridden as they were, have always been hotbeds of popular culture, whether in music, literature, cinema or art. Smart enterpreneurs in Rio's most well-known and accessible favelas, such as Rocinha and Vidigal have begun to take advantage of the new atmostphere to create new business opportunities.

In today's edition of the F. de São Paulo newspaper there's an article detailing the dining options in Rio's favelas. Such an article would have been unthinkable even a year or two ago. The article points out how favelas, and their bars and restaurants, are slowly but surely becoming part of Rio's tourist circuit.

The article does note that there are still significant obstacles and hurdles for potential restaurateurs in favelas. Because of irregularities or deficencies in the water and sewage systems in many favelas, it's difficult to get health permits to operate a restaurant. And restaurants who have become used to using only free pirated electricity and gas, and not paying employment taxes and benefits, find that it's impossible to keep the same cheap prices as before now that they must pay such costs. Also, public safety, or the public perception of the lack of such, still keeps numerous potential clients away.

For those who do want to try favela cuisine, which the article points out can be very good, often a mixture of northeastern and carioca styles, the paper offers a few pointers. First, it's best to arrive and depart by taxi, mini-bus or bus. Driving private cars on the steep streets of favelas is not recommended, nor is arriving by foot. Also, one should be prepared to pay cash for the meal, as most favela restaurants don't accept any form of plastic currency - debit or credit.
Carne de sol at Barraca do Tino

For adventurous readers of Flavors of Brazil, here is the paper's list of recommended restaurants in Rio's favelas:

ladeira Ary Barroso, 66, Chapéu Mangueira tel. 21/8156-3145

rua Alm. Alexandrino, 3.780, casa 7, morro dos Prazeres tel. /21/2225-5780

rua do Mengão, 14, Dona Marta; tel. /21/8229-9968

avenida Presidente João Goulart, 759, Vidigal, tel. 21/3324-1767

rua Hortaliça, 12, morro do Pavão-Pavãozinho, tel. 21/2513-2288

rua Armando de Almeida Lima, casa 6, Vidigal tel. 21/3322-0323

rua Euclides da Rocha, 13, Ladeira dos Tabajaras, tel. /21/3208-0017

avenida Presidente João Goulard, 625, Vidigal

travessa Kátia, 31, Rocinha tel. 21/3324-3040


  1. Great stuff, thanks for this James. Just another good thing to come from the opening up of the favelas.

    I have a question which is a little off-topic, but I thought you would be the perfect person to ask. Do you know of an English language, single page glossary of Northeastern dishes? I'm not expecting somethng exhaustive, but y'know, something to cover the main highlights...

    Cheers! (p.s. I am also going to look out for Pitomba, they look great)

  2. Hi Tom - In fact, I don't know of an English-language glossary of the type your looking for, sorry! Maybe Flavors of Brazil should post one. Regional lists of food terms might be a good addition to this blog. If I get around to compiling some, I promise I'll credit you with the idea.

  3. Here's the glossary you were looking for. Cheers :)


  4. Hi, Nice blog however there are a few misconceptions which I would like to address.

    Very often english language commentators repeat the same overall summary of what a favela 'is' without spending any time or much time in a variety of types of favelas to get an accurate picture.

    'Commerce' is not rudimentary but ranges from homestyle bars and street stalls through to typical middle class store fronts, salons, pharmacies and the kind of shops you see on the street in Ipanema and Copacabana.

    City services are not 'non existent' in the favelas, there is a range of relationships with COMLURB, Light, CEDAE etc depending on the area and 'controlling force' Indeed many favelas have pirate electricity and cable.

    'Ignored for decades' is not true. The era of Governor Brizola saw significant public works in the favelas and there have been several major initiatives over the 'decades' including gang occupied favelas. Complexo do Manguinhos and Mare are good examples which show recent public works developments, libraries, cinemas, schools, clinics etc and a range of housing development eras in non pacified favelas.

    The drug gangs occupy only a portion of Rio favelas. Many are neutral or occupied by Milicia groups in addition to MP/UPP and army controlled areas.

    Not a single UPP favela has had any success what so ever in removing drug crime. Whatever GLOBO may report is a total fabrication and propaganda. If you know how to look you can see the drug points working all day everyday with full knowledge of the police, if you know what they look like you can see cocaine caps and the plastic from marijuana packages all over the street and if you spend some serious time in a 'pacified' favela you will see that the drug dealers are everywhere and the UPP is openly paid off.

    The favelas have never been 'no go' areas. you are perfectly free and safe to walk into any favela pacified or not. If you go into a gang run favela though its obviously not a place to just wander around without a point but you can go to shop or visit a friend with no problems.

    So forget the police, drug gangs, milicia, pacified, unpacified. If your not involved in drugs then you are not part of that world.

    Go visit a restaurant, any restaurant in any favela and get to know the community.


    1. Thanks for your insightful comment. I appreciate your point of view, and agree that favela life viewed from "inside" and "outside" are two entirely different matters. I do think that whether its strictly a media/GLOBO matter as you say, or whether it has some substance, perception of life in the favelas and its supposed dangers has changed since the beginning of the UPP program, at least in the eyes of those "outsiders", particularly foreigners and tourists. My article was aimed primarily at them, and was an attempt to lessen their fears. I hope you can understand why I published what I did. Because this blog is in English, 85% of its readership is non-Brazilian, and my focus is on that group.

  5. hey, saw your list of restaurants and bars in the favelas of rio, good one! but the best one is missing! you should visit "the maze" in tavares bastos! this slum has the BOPE HQ, so it's really quiet. the maze is actually a bed&breakfast with a bar and they give 2 parties a month, the jazz night and the other one with alternative bands called labirinto.
    i agree when people say they still have drug dealers in the favelas, the difference is they don't walk there like they own the place, showing their big guns and stuff. i've seen drug dealers in london, the big problem with the slums in rio is not the drugs, but the guns they bring.(not saying selling drugs is not a problem though)

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