The first time I walk by a padaria in Brazil, I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to step inside. I’ve visited hundreds of bakeries, boulangeries, panaderías or 面包店 around the world and the process is usually straightforward if you’ve ever pushed, pulled or slid a door open before. Hell, plenty of bakeries just leave the door open because the smell of freshly baked bread increases foot traffic.
I was stumped for a few second. A turnstile was standing between bread and me. Should I jump it like a Parisian subway user?
“Aperte o botão.”
Oh. So that’s how it works. Smart.
So you press a—usually green—button and the machine spits out a “comanda,” a large plastic card with a barcode and a two- or three-digit number.
Keep it with you. I repeat, keep it with you—this is your new identity, you’re now “518,” “023” or whatever. If you lose your comanda, you will never be able to leave the bakery again, which would be…—fuck, great idea. Must lose comanda one of these days.
When you buy bread, for instance—smart move in a bakery—you will need to show the comanda or give the number and your purchase will be charged on it. Other items you may pick up, typically anything with a barcode, will be scanned at the cash register.
Ready to pay? Your items and comanda will be scanned, then to exit you will have to insert the comanda into the machine and wait for the green light.
Many bakeries have the turnstile system but others don’t and I’ve never been able to figure out why. It’s not a regional thing—just another Brazilian mystery. Interestingly, also note that bakeries operate on two models—they either close very early and all weekend or stay open very late, sometimes 24/7.
Padarias in Brazil are often more than just bakeries. Sure, they sell bread and baked goods but “deli” or “emporios” also sell savoury snacks, pizza, coffee, cigarettes, cheese, cold cuts, basic groceries and more.
Some padarias also have comida por quilo which is an awesome way to eat a cheap, balanced and interesting meal. “Pay by weight” restaurants make a lot more sense to me than the ubiquitous “all-you-can-eat” buffets in North America.
There are amazing comida por quilo in all Brazilian cities. Since lunch is typically the bigger meal of the day, it’s often the most expensive one but there’s more selection. After 3 p.m., lunch food is often discounted and if the place stays open until dinner, chances are the only option will be a selection of hearty soups.
I usually go to the comida por quilo at noon and take it to go—containers are available—to eat it for dinner, the bigger meal of the day for me. I’ve made awesome plates of rice or cuscus (semolina) with bacalhau (cod fish), tilapia or salmão, baked or grilled veggies, grilled brown sugar bananas and more.
In the Nordeste, I ate a lot of baked or boiled macaxeira (yuca), farofa (toasted cassava) and moqueca (fish or banana stew with palm oil, coconut milk, tomatoes, onions, garlic, lime and coriander).
One of the most interesting foods I’ve discovered is tapioca—as in sweet or savoury tapioca pancakes.
You can eat tapioca anywhere in Brazil but it’s mostly popular in the Nordeste where there’s a tapioca stand every two metres. Moistened tapioca flour is spread on a hot plate—wait a minute or two for the flour to meld together, same for the other side, then wrap around a sweet or savoury filling. Popular options include coconut and shredded meat; coconut, ham and cheese; coco, egg and cheese, etc. The top sweet fillings are banana and chocolate or cheese and goiabada.
A tapioca is around $2-$3 and it’s very filling.
What does it taste like? It’s… strange, actually, because tapioca has a completely neutral flavour. The texture is very chewy, a bit like Chinese glutinous sweet rice. I suspect it’s a trendy food right now because it’s gluten free…
Alright, time to warm up my dinner.
Yep, comida por quilo, once again.