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What's For Dinner? Try Brazilian

Brazilian fare from the restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paulo is some of the best in the world — literally. It's currently ranked the sixth best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino.
Rodrigo Paoletti
Brazilian fare from the restaurant D.O.M. in Sao Paulo is some of the best in the world — literally. It's currently ranked the sixth best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino.

When you think of the world's great cuisines, Brazilian food doesn't spring to mind. But that is about to change.

Outside Brazil, the South American nation is most famous for its barbecue, or churrascaria. But inside the country, a new movement celebrating regional foods is booming. And ahead of the World Cup and the Olympics, Brazilians are hoping the world will get a new taste of Brazil.

I visit a restaurant called Consulado Mineiro, which specializes in food from the state Minas Gerais. Right in front of me is a huge bubbling pot of beans.

The food here is fried, it's salty, but it's really tasty.

Helvecio Oliveira, the owner of the restaurant, says food from Minas is simple food. The state of Minas is named after its mines.

Historically, it supplied gold to what was then the capital, Rio. Food had to be easy to transport because it was taken on mules for days, Oliveira says. So the cuisine here uses a lot of salted beef and beans.

Those humble beginnings, Oliveira says, gave food from Minas a bad rap. It was looked at as poor people's food.

And that was the case for Brazilian food in general. Even though the continent-sized country has 26 states, each with different histories and flavors, as in many post-colonial nations, people looked down on what was native. A good restaurant was French, Italian or Portuguese — but certainly not Brazilian.

Mara Salles, the chef owner of Tordesilhas in Sao Paulo, was one of the first chefs to take Brazilian food seriously. When she started, she says, there were no Brazilian chefs focusing on Brazilian gastronomy.

"I started teaching at Brazil's first chef school in 2002. It was the very beginning of the Brazilian gastronomy movement," she says. "People at the time were into other cuisines, and the chefs had to have worked in other countries to be respected. I had none of that. It was really hard to make them see that Brazil has a great diversity."

Then something interesting happened.

When the Brazilian boom began a decade ago, Brazilians started gaining self-esteem. And, Salles says, everything Brazilian became more well-known outside the country.

Which made it more valuable inside the country. Professionally run restaurants serving regional food from all over Brazil began popping up. And now some of the best restaurants in the world are here. This year, Alex Atala's restaurant D.O.M., which focuses on Amazonian ingredients, was named among the world's top 10.

And many restaurants are becoming commercial successes that have an eye on the international market.

Coco Bambu is a chain of restaurants that focuses on the coastal cuisine of the state of Ceara — that means a lot of shrimp, fish and creamy sauces. The 20-something partners behind the brand are Arthur Moraes and Ronald Aguiar.

"Brazilians are traveling the whole world now, and they eat at the best restaurants. And in a way people are looking for something new. And regional Brazilian restaurants are new, in a way," Aguiar says.

In five years, their chain has grown from one location to eight. And Moraes says Brazilian regional cuisine will go global with the World Cup and the Olympics. Reservations at their restaurants are already sold out for the month of the World Cup in 2014.

The group plans to open a branch next year in the heart of Miami.

"We are taking that new Brazil taste, that new Brazilian gastronomy that Brazilians love, to a wider audience," Moraes says.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.