Ok, you guys, I survived weeks of classes away from home. I stayed with relatives who generously extended a spare bed and dinner every night. Dinner invariably consisted of a triple-carb combo (beans/pasta/rice), meat, and they avoid vegetables like they were are an endangered species. It was all yummy (and hey–free!), but I´m pretty sure I doubled my caloric intake overnight. So with no kitchen resources to cook (I´m also 99% sure I´d have offended the chef if I came home with a pile of ingredients and started whipping up my own food), I set out to find some healthy eats in the city for breakfast and lunch. Here´s my 10 survival tips for eating healthy on the cheap in Brazil:
- Save your plastic spoon. If you get an ice-cream or Açai somewhere and are given a plastic spoon, SAVE IT. An alternative solution is to talk an ice-cream vendor to give you one of those tiny plastic tasting spoons. Just like the hitchhiker´s towel, it has a million and one uses. More on this later, just do it. Cost (if you’re crafty): free. If you want to buy a cheap metal one in a supermarket or dime store: R$1,80.
- Beware juices at restaurants and lanchonetes. Brazilians have a determined sweet tooth. The natural juices served to you are almost guaranteed to have ridiculous amounts of sugar. And unless you can see piles of exotic fruits behind the counter odds are that your cashew or passionfruit juice was made from a frozen packet containing lots of food coloring and more sugar. Instead, ask for a lemonade and ask them to go easy on the sugar. Lemons are always in season, so your odds of getting something fresh is much greater. Alternatively, ask for a limonada suica (Swiss lemonade)–lemonade with a spritz of milk–frothy, cool, and delicious. Cost: R$2,00.
- Look for signs that advertize “Vitaminas.” The same rule applies to the fruit juice–buy a places with piles of fruit on hand–but your odds are better that these fruit shakes are made from real fruit. They´re usually made in a blender on the premises, so you can ask them to hold the sugar or mix in other fruits (strawberry, banana, pineapple) to add sweetness. Add oatmeal (aveia) for protein. Cost: R$2-3,00.
- Find a good “Sem Balança” restaurant. Most Brazilian restaurants are buffet-style with a scale at the end of the line to charge you per-kilo for your food. Some restaurants offer a “sem balança” option where you can choose one or two meats and graze from the buffet all for a fixed price. You´ll spend half as much as you would at a churrascurria where you pay by the kilo. Just be careful for signs indicating special prices (example: one place charged an extra R$1,00 to pile a boiled egg on your plate. Since a dozen costs R$3,00, it was arguably the most expensive egg I’ve ever eaten.) Cost if you’re thrifty and get only one protien: R$7-9,00.
- Pick a restaurant with a good buffet selection, not just tasty meats. Standard buffet offerings will include shredded kale, lettuce, chopped tomatos, and beets. Better places will have an even wider variety of side dishes. Mix match the raw veggies to make a salad for yourself. Then go grab some cooked veggie dishes that look good and some feijoada or beans. Pile carbs on your plate afterwards if you still have room (I´ll bet you that you won´t). Meat selection goes on the top. A squeeze of lemon to finish.
- Did you remember your spoon? Even the smallest supermarket will have a good selection of yogurts. Look for ones with a high protein and low carb count (remember that Brazilians like things sweet). Or even better buy plain yogurt and top with fresh fruit and granola. Yogurt travels well too, so you can buy a small bottle and throw it in your bag for a snack later. Look in the natural food section in the larger, well-stocked pharmacies to buy some granola to eat with your plain yogurt (Farmacia Indiana, Araujo, to name a few larger chains for examples). Cost: Yogurt – R$1,00. Granola – R$6,00 for a week’s supply.
- Fresh fruit is everywhere, except in the roadside pit stops. Plan ahead, and when you pass a fruit market buy some apples or pears or strawberries to snack on later. When travelling long distances by bus, you´ll appreciate the change from the repetitive coxinhas and pão de quiejo that every place offers. Cost: R$2-3,00 for 4-5 pieces of fruit.
- Buy the small serving of Açai. I´m not going to deny you this tourist must-do. Açai is delicious and filled with all sorts of vitamins and anti-oxidents. But a 500mL cup of açai has over 800 calories. Be wise and buy the small size. Cost: R$2-3,00.
- Make sandwiches. Supermarkets often carry sliced meats and cheeses. Brazilians eat this on french bread for breakfast. Buy some sliced bread (you might even be able to find a whole grain), some mustard or mayo (use your spoon as a spreader–aren´t you glad you saved it?) and make a sandwich for the road. For added vitamins, buy some lettuce or avocado from the vegetable market (if the avocado is ripe you should be able to manage spreading it with your trusty plastic spoon). If you´re traveling, you might have to pack these in shopping bags since Brazilians don´t do sandwiches, ergo no sandwich bags. Cost: Bread – R$3,00. Sandwich meats – R$2,00/packet.
- Go easy on the pão de queijo. It´s easy to gobble these repeatedly, but halfway through your bus ride you´ll climb out of your carb-coma and wonder why the heck you did that to yourself. Opt instead for a salgado (a savory snack): a coxinha (chicken filling, sometimes even has cream cheese) or an espeito (breaded chicken on a stick) for some protein to balance out all the sugar in the cafezinhos. They will do a better job at lasting you through the day. Cost: R$2-2,50.
I figure my strategy was a success. All in all, I managed to come home just about the same size as when I left, with only a mild craving for raw vegetables. However I have to disclose that I was also taking massage classes. The average massage therapist burns 200 calories in just one session. And I pounded the pavement from the bus stop to class to shops to buy class supplies daily. So maybe I’m not the best control subject after all. How about you dear travelers? What’s your favorite way of eating on the cheap while traveling the roads of Brazil?
My favorite natural drinks (no sugar added) are agua de coco (1R the nut) and caldo de cana (1R the glass). Both usually typically sold out of a van in the street or market, sometimes in lanchonetes (lunch bar) too.
Yes, those are fantastic and so satisfying on a hot day!