By Jay Forte, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Celebrating Christmas in Brazil may seem completely foreign to those from the Northern Hemisphere where the cold and snowy winter is a primary ingredient. Yet family gatherings and a big Ceia de Natal (Christmas Dinner) is a consistent theme, and when it comes to the menu there are plenty of things to cheer about.
The main dishes served for the holiday in Brazil are a Christmas turkey and bacalhau (codfish). The turkey is traditionally served with white rice flavored with walnuts.
Bacalhau is dried and salted cod, and there are perhaps thousands of variations of the recipe, but for Christmas it often includes eggs, peppers, potatoes, onions and olives.
A potato salad called Maionese, with apples and raisins is one popular side dish. Another side dish is Farofa, or fried manioc, and often tropical fruits, particularly bananas, watermelon and pineapple, will adorn the table.
British expatriate living in Rio, Tom Le Mesurier of popular food guide Eat Rio, explains, “One of the biggest differences between a Brazilian and British Christmas dinner is the inclusion of rice (and farofa). Almost all Brazilian meals include rice and Christmas is no different.”
He adds, “Around Christmas time, many Brazilians indulge their Portuguese roots with a bacalhau (salt cod) dish. It took me a while to warm to bacalhau – if it isn’t done perfectly then it can be a little underwhelming and you end up wondering what all the fuss is about – but over the years I have come to love the richness of the flakes of cod combined with all that lovely olive oil.”
Perhaps the star of the show is rabanada, which no Brazilian Christmas Dinner would do without. The word rabanada means “gust of wind” and it is similar to French toast – certainly the most traditional dessert served during the holiday.
Le Mesurier shares, “I am a huge fan of rabanada! For me, Brazil’s take on French Toast takes on the role of the traditional British mince pie – it’s not Christmas until I’ve had at least 5 or 6!”
He added, “I have yet to meet someone who didn’t like rabanada – like pizza, even bad rabanada is still pretty good. My mother-in-law also makes a fantastic dish of roasted pernil glazed with melado (sugarcane syrup) and mustard – if this dish is on the menu anywhere then don’t miss out.”
Some variations in the southern parts of Brazil are a German strudel and “stollen” (a cake containing dried fruits and marzipan), and an extremely popular Italian “panettone” (sweet bread) sitting next to the Christmas feast, displaying the strong European influence on the history and tradition of these regions.
Following the country’s Iberian heritage, the Christmas meal is traditionally eaten late on Christmas Eve, either before or after a late night mass known as the Missa do Galo (Mass of the Rooster), named after the rooster that announces the coming of Christmas day.