Does Brazilian Food Have Nuts?

The food of Brazil is as diverse as the people that inhabit this massive South American country. With influences from the Amazon rainforest for which it is most famous, as well as Europe, West Africa, and even Asia, Brazilian cuisine has something for all food lovers. And because of its all-encompassing breadth of ingredients, those with food allergies would be well-advised to do their research before partaking.

Nuts are not prevalent in Brazilian cuisine, but are used as ingredients in certain popular dishes. Also, Brazil and cashew nut trees are native to the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. As a result, local foods in some parts of Brazil, especially indigenous peoples’ diets, rely on the use of these nuts.

Whether you are planning to visit Brazil, or simply want to check out a local Brazilian restaurant, it is always good to research a particular cuisine, especially if you are unfamiliar with the food and its commonly used ingredients.  For those with nut allergies, knowing which Brazilian dishes to be cautious of, or to avoid altogether, will allow the unique and captivating flavors of Brazil’s food scene to be experienced and enjoyed.

A Brief History of Brazilian Cuisine – What You Need to Know

Brazil is the largest country in South America, and one of the five largest in the world, in terms of area.  (Source:  The Brazilian Report)  In such a vast nation, there are bound to be distinct regional cuisines, which is certainly true in Brazil. 

Throughout civilized history, people worldwide have developed cuisines and dishes that are reflective of the food resources available to them.

Brazil’s fare reflects the diverse cultures that make up its people groups. The main pillars of which are comprised of:

  • Brazil’s Indigenous population (the Guarani, Tupi, and Arawak peoples),
  • Strong Portuguese influences, and
  • West African influences.

Brazil became a colony of Portugal in the 14th century. Portugal had a long history of using slaves to complete undesirable tasks. When the Portuguese colonists started moving to Brazil, they brought along their practice of using West African slaves to work the plantations.

Thankfully, that’s no longer an acceptable practice. In spite of that horrible past, the West African culture has generously shared their culinary influence and made Brazil’s food experiences much richer because of it.

Adding to Brazil’s complex food tapestry are the culinary contributions of numerous waves of immigrants who arrived in Brazil through the centuries from places like:

  • Europe (Italy, Germany),
  • The Middle East (Syria, Lebanon), and
  • Asia (Japan).

(Source:  The Culinary Institute of America – Blog)

Which Brazilian Regions Use Nuts in Their Cooking

You would not be surprised to find several barbecue restaurants in the Midwest and the South.  Nor would you be shocked by the popularity of crab and lobster along the Northern Atlantic coast in the Northeastern U.S.

Likewise, certain types of dishes (and the ingredients used to make them) are more prevalent in some regions of Brazil than others. 

Here is a snapshot of Brazil’s regions and the types of food you can expect to find in them:

Northern Region

The populations in the northern states are made up primarily of peoples with Portuguese and indigenous ancestry. The states of the north are also home of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, and the food culture in this region is heavily influenced by the food resources found within it, including:

  • Manioc (cassava root),
  • Fruit,
  • Fish, and
  • Peanuts

Northeastern Region

The food culture in this region has been shaped by indigenous, African, and Portuguese influences.  Common ingredients include:

  • Rice,
  • Beans,
  • Okra,
  • Various fruit,
  • Shellfish and seafood, and
  • Coconut. 

With its proximity to the rainforest, many native dishes include peanuts and cashews.

Southern Region

Many European immigrants (namely, Germans and Italians) found their way to southern Brazil, where they made their new home and began adapting their native food cultures to locally available resources. 

Prevalent regional cuisine incorporates:

  • Leafy vegetables,
  • Long-cooking stews,
  • Pastas, and
  • Rice dishes.

Southeastern Region

Brazil’s largest city, São Paolo, is located in this region and is Brazil’s most modern and cosmopolitan city.  As such, the area in general has a diversified food culture comprising a broad spectrum of cultural and traditional influences.  Traditional dishes that are popular throughout the southeast include:

  • Rice,
  • Chicken, and
  • Beans

But equally popular are non-traditional foods like:

  • Pasta,
  • Pizza, and
  • Sushi

(Source:  Celebrate Brazil)

Does Brazilian Food Contain Nuts?

The use of cashews, peanuts, and Brazil nuts in local dishes likely started in the northern and northeastern Brazilian locales. That is where indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest found them to be valuable food resources. 

From there, the use of nuts in cooking spread along the eastern part (Atlantic coast) of Brazil, particularly the Bahia region, and then throughout the rest of the states in this sprawling country.

Rarely is a country’s national cuisine defined by one or a few ingredients and this is undoubtedly the case with Brazil. 

Many Brazilian dishes traditionally use nuts as an ingredient, and in some cases, nuts take center stage.

But to say that Brazil’s food scene is a minefield fraught with danger at every step for those with nut allergies (or even just an aversion toward nuts) would be an inaccurate statement.  (Source:  TripAdvisor – Travel Forum)

Which Nuts Grow in Brazil?

Brazil nuts in bowl and on table
The Brazil Nut

The Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, particularly the northeastern part, is home to several nut trees, including:

  • The cashew nut,
  • The paradise nut, and not surprisingly,
  • The Brazil nut.

The latter of which is rarely ever found growing outside of Brazil. 

In Brazil’s savannahs, the baru nut (also known as the baru almond,) is grown and consumed. The baru nut is a legume like a peanut. (Source:  Scientific Research Project – SCIRP)

The Varieties of Brazilian Nut Trees

As far as nut trees that are native to the Brazilian rainforest are concerned, the nuts they bear are found not only in the diets of local indigenous peoples, but also in the local and regional cuisines of the northern and northeastern regions of Brazil and beyond.

  • Cashew nut (castanha de caju in Portuguese) – although it is technically a drupe, and therefore a dry fruit, cashew nuts are commonly grouped with tree nuts and appear as such on allergen lists. The cashew tree is native to the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and can be found throughout the tropical areas of Central and South America.
  • Paradise nut – this tree nut is related to the more famous Brazil nut. And like the Brazil nut, Paradise nuts are housed in hard outer casings. While not nearly as well-known, Paradise nuts taste like Brazil nuts, and their flesh contains a similar amount of naturally occurring oils.
  • Brazil nut (castanha-do-pará in Portuguese) – the tree on which this nut grows is one of the iconic native trees of the Amazon rainforest. Growing up to heights of 200 feet, with a sprawling canopy of branches and flowers, the Brazil nut tree is an impressive sight to behold.  In the wild, guinea pig-like rodents known as agouti gnaw open Brazil nuts from their protective, woody capsules. (Source:  Palomar College – W.P. Armstrong)
  • Brazilian pine nut (pinhão in Portuguese) – the pinhão is harvested from the Araucaria family of pine trees common throughout the Southern Hemisphere. The use of these nuts in local and regional food cultures pre-dates the arrival of the Portuguese colonists.

 The Brazilian pine nut variety is starkly different from its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, most noticeably in terms of size.  Whereas the pine nut, commonly found throughout North America and Europe, may measure about ½ inch in size, the pinhão is four to six times larger, measuring two to three inches long. 

In addition, Brazilian pine nuts are a dark brown color (as opposed to the beige or tan of their northern cousins) and have a much stronger flavor. 

Aside from being used as a food source, they are even used to make a particular type of wine.  (Source:  Flavors of Brazil)

Which Brazilian Dishes Have Nuts?

Given their proximity to the Brazilian Amazon, Brazil’s foods of the northern and northeastern regions were deeply influenced by the indigenous peoples’ cooking cultures who called those areas home for centuries. 

Utilizing food resources that were readily available to them, many of the ingredients of native, traditional Brazilian foods consist of:

  • Fish,
  • Plants,
  • Seeds,
  • Fruits,
  • Roots (tubers), and
  • Nuts

Indigenous Brazilian food traditions eventually melded with those of the Portuguese colonists, and the West African cultures that were later brought over to Brazilian states such as:

  • Rio Grande do Norte,
  • Maranhao,
  • Bahia,
  • Sergipe,
  • Piaui,
  • Paraiba,
  • Pernambuco,
  • Alagoas, and
  • Ceara

Brazil’s northeast is considered the cradle of its food culture, and many dishes, once popularized there, quickly spread throughout the country.

(Source:  Natal Brazil – Rio Grande do Norte)

As far as traditional Brazilian dishes, nuts are not an uncommon ingredient, mainly:

  • Cashews,
  • Brazil nuts,
  • Peanuts, and
  • Pine nuts (pinhão). (Source:  Easy and Delish

Here is a sampling of popular savory and sweet dishes found throughout Brazil that traditionally or commonly contain nuts. Many of these popular foods originated from Brazil’s northern and northeastern regions.

Savory Nut Dishes

Acaraje filled with catalpa paste
Acaraje popular Brazilian street food of Bahia

With a vibrant blend of different cooking techniques from Europe, Africa, and South America, Brazil’s savory dishes utilize a wide variety of spices and fresh ingredients to achieve unique, signature flavors.

  • Acarajé – throughout Brazil, and in particular, the northeastern state of Bahia, you would be hard-pressed to find a busy street that did not have a street vendor or restaurant selling this immensely popular dish. Sometimes referred to as the Brazilian version of a falafel, acarajé is a deep-fried fritter made from beans or black-eyed peas.

 Central to this African-influenced dish (literally and figuratively speaking) is the savory filling that occupies the fritter’s core once it is split open after frying. More often than not, this filling consists of a paste made from ground cashew nuts and some type of meat or seafood.

  • Vatapá – another specialty dish with Afro-Brazilian origins coming from the Bahia state, Vatapá is a bright, yellow-colored stew containing ingredients such as stale bread, fish, shrimp, coconut milk, manioc flour, dendêpalm oil, and ground cashew nuts (or peanuts).  Although it was  popularized in Brazil’s northeastern region, it can be found throughout the country and is considered a national dish.

 Vatapá is most often served as a main course accompanied by white rice, or as an incredibly flavorful and savory filling for the acarajé, as mentioned above.

  • Other Brazilian favorites include Caruru (a hearty stew of dried shrimp, okra, and toasted peanuts and cashew nuts), and Xim Xim de Galinha (chicken braised with coconut milk, dried shrimp, palm oil, peanuts, and cashews).

Like acarajé and vatapá, both of these popular dishes originated in Brazil’s northeast and fused Portuguese and West African food cultures.

Sweet and Dessert Nut Dishes

Pe de Moleque and loose peanuts on green picnic table cloth
Pe de Moleque

One of the food cultures brought over to Brazil by the Portuguese was their affinity for sweets and you see it in many Brazilian desserts.

  • Cajuzinho – the name translates to “little cashew,” but it is more descriptive of its shape than its ingredients. Aside from condensed milk, sugar, and cocoa powder, the dominant flavor in this decadent treat is peanut, which is used in either ground or crushed form. Cajuzinho is widespread throughout Brazil and is often served at festive settings like parties and celebrations.

 This sweet dish is so common that it is often made in Brazilian homes and is also available in pre-packaged form in grocery stores and supermarkets.

  • Pé-de-moleque – Brazil’s peanut brittle is made with two common ingredients, peanuts, and unrefined cane sugar. Despite its simplicity, it is enormously popular throughout the country.

Pé-de-moleque can take on different forms, including light and dark versions, as well as substitutions of other types of nuts in the place of peanuts.  Even the texture can vary from firm and crunchy to soft and chewy.

(Source:  Taste Atlas)

  • Paçoca – this rich and decadent treat perhaps best epitomizes Brazil’s love for sweets and peanuts. It is often described as the peanut filling from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, only firmer and shaped into cylinders.
  • Tapioca crepe – popularized in Brazil’s northeastern states, the tapioca crepe can now be found throughout the country but in particular, in towns and cities along the Atlantic coastline. The crepe portion (which is made from cassava, or manioc, root flour) is a light and fluffy vehicle for the different fillings inside.

Savory tapioca crepes often have fillings comprised of ham, cheese, tomato, and similar types of ingredients.  Sweet tapioca crepes are filled with chocolate, fruit such as strawberries and bananas, and very often topped with some kind of nut. (Source:  The Culture Trip)

  • Pinhão – with a cooked flavor similar to roasted chestnuts, pinhão (Brazilian pine nuts) is a particularly common food ingredient in Brazil’s northern and northeastern regions. Indigenous peoples enjoy roasting just-fallen pinhão over an open fire.

 During Southern Hemisphere winters (May through August) street vendors can be found selling pinhão by the roadside.

 Popular Brazilian dishes that contain pinhão as the main ingredient include:

  • Paçoca de pinhão, which is a tasty mixture of sliced pine nuts and ground beef
  • The popular stew dish, entrevero, consists of pine nuts, seeds, various vegetables, and meats that are usually cured beforehand
  • When ground into a powder form, pinhão can be used to make a type of flour which is then used to make cakes and or other baked items (Source:  Atlas Obscura)
  • Pavê – is a dessert that is prepared similarly to Italy’s tiramisu. The Brazilian version is often made with cocoa as the primary flavoring agent. However, pave can be made in many ways. One of the most popular is the peanut version, which can be found throughout the country in households, and restaurants. 

Although it is enjoyed widely throughout the year, Pavé is often associated with Christmas (Natal in Portuguese) festivities, during which its popularity (and consumption) soars.  (Source:  I Heart Brazil)

Although their categorization can vary among different authorities, pine nuts are widely considered and classified as a tree nut.  (Source:  Food Allergy Research & Education)

Processed and Packaged Foods in Brazil

It is not just dining out or sampling food from street vendors that raise concerns for those with nut allergies. Like all developed countries, Brazil has a large domestic food processing industry comprised of  manufacturers of pre-packaged foods sold in retail outlets like grocery stores and supermarkets. 

You Can Find Nut Warning Labels in Brazil

As international travelers can attest, food labeling laws vary from nation to nation.

In 2014, a grassroots movement initiated by concerned Brazilian mothers resulted in the founding of a large-scale political campaign to change Brazil’s food labeling laws, which quickly gained popularity among the nation’s citizens.  Thanks to their collective efforts, “Põe no Rotulo” (translation: “Put it on the label”) became law, and there are now 18 allergens that are required to be identified on processed food labels, including the following nuts:

Peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, macadamias, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts, and chestnuts

(Source:  FoodNavigator – LATAM)

If nothing else, the fact that such labeling laws were so vigorously sought by Brazilian citizens to protect themselves and their children from the potentially serious, or even deadly, results brought on by food allergies, is evidence of a general awareness of the need for food safety laws.  It is also a strong indication of the prevalence of food allergies in Brazil, including those involving nuts.

Final Thoughts on Nuts in Brazilian Food

Pacoca Brazilian dessert on picnic tablecloth

With the broadest range of ingredients imaginable, and equally rich diversity of cultural influences from four continents, Brazil’s cuisine offers something for every palate. 

However, with such wide variety, comes a word of caution for those allergic to, or averse to nuts as these are ingredients that have served as a valuable food resource for indigenous Brazilians for centuries, and are still enjoyed by Brazilians today.

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