Tag Archives: brazil

Being Gluten-Free in Brazil

5 Mar

I arrived to the Rio de Janeiro airport in the wee hours of the morning. I quickly saw that the city was already hustling and bustling about. I expected the airport to be a bit of a mad house: people coming up to you, offering you a hostel, taxi, tour, hotel, ride to wherever you would want to go. That was what I encountered in Mumbai, India, and for some reason, I thought Rio would be just as overwhelmingly. Surprisingly, there were the usual smatterings of people holding signs with foreign names, or signs touting the name of their tour companies, but there were not many people. Which was a relief!

I stopped at the tourist information desk before leaving the airport, armed with a map and a booklet of which airport bus to take. It was quite easy to find the stop for the blue airport “omnibus,” although none of the operators seemed to know exactly which bus we should get on. After about half an hour, I asked the operators again, then checked with the bus driver (in Espanol rather than Portuguese) to verify he could take me to Copacabana. Next thing I knew, we were rolling down the busy highway towards Rio’s city center!

I hadn’t done any research on the food in Brazil prior to going. From the bus, I saw bakeries (padarias) filled with gluten-free pastries, some fancy restaurants, a few standard cafeterias, but no supermarkets. I was a bit afraid of what I would find waiting for me. After checking into our hostel, we headed out to the beach. Little did I know that Brazil has a plethora of choices when it comes to beverages. My three favorite ones are:

– coco gelado (ice cold coconut water that the servers hatch into with a machete and stick a straw into)

coco gelado

– acai (yes, the superfood berry is blended up into a smoothie…and it is to die for! this got me through the ultra-humid days and hikes around the city. You can order it just as a “bebida” and it will come as a smoothie. If that is too thick, you can find acai juice in the markets)

acai smoothie

– caipirinha (the national cocktail of Brazil, made with its famous alcohol, cachaça, sugar, and lime)


Out of all of the South American countries, Brazil is among the most expensive ones in which to travel–and, I quickly realized,  to eat out. One main entree can run between 50 and 100 Brazilian reais, about $25-$50 USD. We could not afford to do the tours we wanted and eat out once a day for that price. Instead, we opted for the local supermarket. Most Brazilian supermercados offer a good selection of fresh fruits and vegetables. My husband and I love to eat meat (we still try to make protein a large part of our diet, despite neither currently lifting weights nor engaging in high-intensity interval training). We were delighted to find steak in the supermarkets for around $5 USD for 300-400 grams. Of course the price varied depending on the cut of meat, but we ate well with what we purchased. We got into a routine of purchasing most of our food at a supermarket and making one big meal (usually dinner) per day back at the shared kitchen in our hostel.

As far as vegetables, good, fresh lettuce was hard to come by. Most of what we found was wilted and undesirable. We opted for bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and carrots. The fruit in Brazil was amazing! We ate a fresh mango–purchased for $1-2 USD–every night. They were better-tasting to me than the ones we had in Thailand. The meat we got was not excellent quality, but it was tasty for its extremely affordable price. We squeezed lime and sprinkled pepper over it as it was cooking, and it was filling after a long day out and about. During the day, we ate small meals and/or snacks frequently. These little guys saved me:

povilho snacks

They are “polvinho” cookies or “polvinho biscuits,” although they do not taste like cookies or biscuits. They are light, airy snacks that come in a few different flavors (traditional (which is just lightly salted), cheese, salsa and onion, and sweet). I think I tried each flavor, and all of them were good! They aren’t the most nutritious, but when a Celiac is in a bind and/or on a 22-hour bus ride, these snacks sure do taste good. Other than these, I mostly ate fruit, veggies, and lunch meat. DO NOT eat the canned tuna. It is fishy and cannot be compared to anything other than cat food. I also found meringues in the supermarkets, which were nice to curb my sweet tooth.

Breakfast in Brazil is not easy. Every morning in each hostel we stayed in, we were served small French bread loaves either with cold cuts (processed meat and cheese) or hot dogs that had been cut up and cooked in a tomato-based sauce with onions. Luckily, I can tolerate oats. I just carried plain instant oatmeal (which I found in the supermarkets, labeled “flocos de aveia” or “aveia com flocos”) with me to each hostel and asked for a bowl. Depending on what the hostel offered, I’d either add fruit or a bit of jam to the oatmeal for flavor. For those true Celiacs that cannot tolerate oats, it would be best to make your own breakfast or bring something that you can eat. You can easily find eggs in the supermarkets, although Brazilians usually eat them for lunch or dinner with rice or on a sandwich.

Of course, you have to try some dishes to better understand the culture and country you are visiting. My good Brazilian friend lives in Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais. I informed her of my allergy prior to visiting her. She took my husband and me out to a Bahian restaurant and ordered moqueca, a seafood stew with a thick yellow-orangeish broth that reminded me of yellow curry. The taste, however, was far different from curry and had a hint of cilantro. Accompanying the moqueca was a bright orange powder that my friend encouraged me to put with  the stew and rice. I was hesitant because it looked like a flour of some kind. After verifying with our server that there was no wheat and/or gluten in it, I tried it. Boy, was it delicious! We stuffed ourselves.


Here is the “flour” we added to our stew:

manioc flour

I researched what moqueca was made out of because my friend kept telling me the Brazilian word. It translated as “manioc,” and I had absolutely no idea what that was! Turns out that manioc, along with polvinho, come from the same root: the cassava plant.

Because my friend is from Minas Gerais, she wanted to share some local food with me. I hesitated because its name was pao de  queijo, literally “cheese bread.” We checked the back of all of the packages, and they proudly announced, “NAO CONTEM GLUTEN!” After double-checking each ingredient in the pao, I ate four of five of these rolls to my heart’s content.  My friend informed me that pao de queijo is a typical breakfast food. Many Brazilians tear the little rolls in half and spread butter or marmalade on them–or even a slice of cheese! To me, they were perfect right out the oven without anything added. It was such a treat to eat gluten-free bread that could be found in any supermarket! Here they are:

pao de queijo

©Lucia Adverse 2009

The moral of this long post: in Brazil, the cassava root, shown below, is your best gluten-free friend!

Here is the root in its natural form, then the flour produced from it:

cassava root

cassava flour

Enjoy your visit to Brazil and please share any gluten-free treasures you found and/or know of for other travelers to try. ;D

I’m currently in Peru and am taking notes of what to eat–and what to avoid–and will update with a Gluten-Free Peru edition within the next few weeks. Please check back!