Bespoke Brazil’s Ellie sheds a little light on how to navigate Rio de Janeiro as a vegetarian. Whilst Brazil’s cuisine is perhaps more famous for its carnivorous delights, there’s plenty of meat-free options for veggies to enjoy during their time exploring the Marvellous City just as much.
If you’re planning on visiting Latin America, then you may have heard that they eat a lot of meat. While this is true for the most part, that certainly doesn’t mean that if you are a vegetarian, you aren’t going to be able to fill up on holiday and appreciate the local cuisine. While I am not exactly a strict vegetarian (I do like to eat fish on occasion, and have only been a vegetarian for a few months), I recently visited Rio de Janeiro with my family and got a taste of what it is like to travel as one for the first time. Here’s my take on what was easy and what I found hard, as well as a couple of recommendations and tips for those who plan on enjoying a meat-free visit to Rio in the future.
First and foremost, there are plenty of vegetarian (and vegan!) restaurants and cafés around the city, so you certainly are not going to starve. Some lovely vegetarian restaurants in the city include Spazziano and Teva, both in the stylish Ipanema neighbourhood, which serve delicious vegetarian food and are on par with top-level vegetarian restaurants in New York or London. The hip and young areas of Ipanema and Leblon are certainly the best bet in Rio to find quality vegetarian places to eat.
While Rio itself is definitely not short of vegetarian restaurants and cafés to explore, if members of your party would like to eat at more authentic Brazilian restaurants during your stay, then vegetarian options will inevitably be slightly more limited.
Visiting a Brazilian churrascaria is a must for any meat-eater in Brazil, so if you are travelling with non-vegetarians, then you might be dragged along to one of these traditional barbeque restaurants. My family all eat meat so I was happy to go and was assured that there would be plenty for me to eat. Most churrascarias tend to have very impressive, large salad bars which offer a variety of foods suitable for vegetarians, often including a range of breads, local cheeses, and hot and cold sides alongside the ‘salad’ essentials. Many of these establishments also charge a reduced flat rate for veggies who will be sticking to the salad bar.
If you do eat fish, like me, then you will have plenty of food to suit you there. I enjoyed a huge platter of sashimi, other sushi, prawns cooked in at least four different ways, oysters, squid, lobster and much more. If you do not eat fish, your options may be slightly more limited, although no salad bar here is small and you will not go hungry. It might be worth searching your chosen restaurant online to see what they have on offer for vegetarians. It is worth mentioning that if you are the kind of vegetarian who does not like looking at meat, or being around too much of it, then visiting a churrascaria might be a bad idea, as waiters bring out all kinds of meat on huge skewers to your table, including bloody steaks and more niche delicacies such as chicken hearts.
Aside from traditional barbeques, most restaurants in Rio de Janeiro have vegetarian options available (each one I visited did), but as a general rule they will be fairly limited to just one or two. Some restaurants may not have any dishes available without meat in them, with the exception of a plate of chips or side salads, so I would always recommend searching the restaurant online beforehand, just to check there is something you like the look of.
Additionally, if food is going to be cooked for you on a tour for example, it is important that you let us know in advance what you can and cannot eat, as guides and local operators may not have vegetarian options planned by default. Remember (relevant in restaurants and on tours alike), simply saying that you are vegetarian may not suffice, as they may take that to mean you can eat fish, or may not understand that that includes foods cooked in animal fats, gelatine, and other less-obvious animal products.
While in Rio, my family and I took a boat tour out to the nearby islands and enjoyed a BBQ on the back of the boat while watching the sun set over the city behind Christ the Redeemer. As we knew food would be cooked for us on the boat, I ensured the tour guide and boat captain knew about my dietary requirements days before the trip, so they kindly brought some salmon for me (although there was so much that the fish alone could have fed my whole family). The only downside to this was that they cooked my fish after the meat and lay it on top of the grill where the juicy meat had just been cooked. I had not thought to mention this before my fish was cooking, but it is a good thing to keep in mind if this could be an issue for you. Make sure that you specify your exact needs as soon as you can. Brazilians will always go out of their way to accommodate vegetarian requirements, but many do not understand it in the same way as we are used to in Europe.
One final tip for travellers planning on visiting Rio de Janeiro is that not everything is labelled as vegetarian. While most of us are used to knowing for sure if something contains meat or not by the symbol ‘(V)’ or similar on menus, this is not always the case in Brazil. I mistakenly assumed that the vegetable soup served at the lounge of my hotel was meat-free, before discovering it in fact contained bacon. Always ask your waiter!
In conclusion, whilst you will not be short of options as a vegetarian in Rio de Janeiro, it may be worth doing a little extra research beforehand, and always double-checking with waiters and tour guides that nothing you are eating contains meat. Do your research, state your requirements as clearly as possible, as soon as you can – and enjoy exploring this fabulous city!
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