By Lauren Hogan, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Fresh pão de queijo (cheese bread) served alongside a cool açaí are mere nibbles of what Rio’s eclectic food scene has to offer. With an incredible mix of culture, from European to Middle Eastern and of course, African, there is an endless amount of places and platters to sink one’s teeth into, but knowing what to try or even how to order, can prove to be problematic when one doesn’t speak the local language or know where to go.
This is where Culinary Backstreets, a local food tour, steps up to the plate. Dishing up a different way for tourists and locals to experience a blend of cultures that are “deliciously and uniquely Brazilian,” palates will be more than pleased after this five-hour long eye – and mouth – opening experience.
Founded by Ansel Mullins and Yigal Schleifer Culinary Backstreets originally started in Istanbul and along with Rio, the company also runs tours in Athens, Shanghai, Mexico City and Barcelona. Schleifer says the tour is meant to highlight a variety of foods, types of restaurants and historical highlights, including his personal favorites, “[like] the Imaculada, a great spot in Morro da Conceicao that nicely blends together old and new Rio and Restaurante Pastoria, an old-time sailor’s spot that serves perhaps the best roast goat in all of town.”
Instead of hitting the popular tourist hotspots, like Copacabana and Ipanema, the route runs through Centro and Port Zone neighborhoods to take visitors through streets they wouldn’t typically frequent to try items like strong coffee from Minas Gerais, less common Amazonian juices, a spicy feijoada-inspired dish and more.
Yet it’s in these areas where the most fascinating of stories come to life – through sight, smell and taste -, where tourers learn about Rio’s history, culture and politics through its food and where the stories of the vendors, who have held the same stall on the same corner for decades, come to life.
“Understanding [Rio’s] history would not be possible if there were not vibrant cultural figures preserving it today,” says journalist, guide and creator of the city’s food route, Catherine Osborn. “On the walk we talk about the communities and people who have kept their histories alive over time, often in very difficult circumstances.”
Of course, along with a wealth of historical knowledge, the guides’ insight into the local eating scene is top notch. Tours start at US$125 per person and include everything consumed during the walk. If that sounds a little steep, then the do-it-yourself foodies can take advantage of the 2014 edition of the annual Rio Gastronomia culinary festival on August 14th to the 24th, or get involved with the Rio Foodies Facebook group.