There are two athletes from Syria on the Refugee Olympic Team, and two others on the team who currently train in Brazil. However, the connection between Syria and Brazil is not new. When we were in Brazil, we were pleasantly surprised at the number of Middle Eastern restaurants, from high-end fine dining to humble corner shops. We love traditional Brazilian food, but we like to try something different every once in a while, and we often turned to Syrian or Lebanese food for a change of pace. This is not just a cuisine trend in the country, there has been a large Syrian population in Brazil for over 100 years, and they are one of the most deeply established immigrant communities in Brazil. Now, there is a newer wave of immigrants fleeing the current conflict in Syria. One of the ways that this new wave of Syrians is contributing to Brazilian culture is through their food enterprises, such as Ahmad Ryad Hamada’s Syrian snack cart and Anas Rjab’s catering service, Simsim.
Kibbe at Al-Kuwait in Rio
Even before the newest Syrian arrivals, you could find foods that are traditionally Levantine all over Rio de Janeiro, as well as other places in Brazil, especially São Paulo. The first time we had the national food of Syria – kibbeh – was actually in Brazil! You will find kibbe and esfiha (small triangle shaped filled dough) at snack shops throughout Brazil, whether or not they have primarily Middle Eastern menus, showing how much Brazilians have adopted Syrian dishes as their own. Syrian influence can also be seen in that pita-like bread is called Pão Sirio (Syrian Bread) in Brazil. There are tons of great places to get Levantine food and spices in Rio, but here are some of our favorites: Al-Kuwait for Kibbe and Esfiha, Quiosque Arab for ambiance and Casas Pedro for spices and Pão Sirio.
Casas Pedro in Rio
Barão de Itapuã, 145
Salvador – Bahia
We had some good kibbe (fried Middle-Eastern bulgar-and-meat meatballs) in Rio. But this tiny little counter in Salvador blew them away. You can’t miss Kiberia’s signature neon orange building, tiny as the restaurant itself may be. There are maybe only four seats in counter space in Kiberia, and the take-out trade is brisk. With three people in there it was a full house! The menu truly is limited, and all you can order are several permutations of kibbe and bottled or canned drinks. The cost for a kibbe (500 grams) is a surprisingly reasonable R$ 6. Another option is to get 6 mini-kibbe for R$ 12.
Kiberia in Salvador, Bahia
In the larger size, you can get a plain meat kibbe or one with cheese added (paradoxically this one is slightly cheaper and smaller). As kibbe purists, we went for just plain meat. The kibbe were fried up to order, and came to us piping hot, even garnished with a wedge of lime. The shape of the kibbe was not too overly-footballish, as we were accustomed to seeing in Rio. The outside was perfectly crisp and crunchy, and the bulgar and meat inside was tender and moist. We also appreciated the wide range of dressings set up on Kiberia’s counter: tahini, sriracha, malagueta pepper, tabasco, Molho Arabe and garlic sauce, among others.
We ate our kibbe so quickly, we were not able to get any pictures. Even after devouring our kibbe, we decided to go for a dessert. The only choice was a Belewa (spelled elsewhere as Beleua), for R$ 3. Beleua is a riff on baklava, but definitely not as sweet, and is composed of a spiced nut paste in layered puff pastry sheets. Like our kibbe, the beleua was delicious. We went into Kiberia expecting only a fast food fix, but we heartily recommend them for some great kibbe in Salvador.
Rua Domingos Morais, 86 – Vila Mariana
Sao Paulo, 04010-000, Brazil
São Paulo, with its cosmopolitan populace, is home to a large middle-Eastern population – especially Lebanese residents. This of course means delicious Lebanese food, one of our favorite varieties. Some Lebanese-inherited dishes have become popular all across Brazil – including kibbe – ground beef and cracked wheat fritters and the esfiha – an open faced pastry with either sweet or savory toppings. There are Middle Eastern restaurants on almost every corner of Sampa, so were definitely spoiled for choice (much as we were for Pizzas, as we will write about shortly). Right around the corner from our friends’ place was a Lebanese takeout restaurant that racked up accolades from Veja magazine and the like for awesome Lebanese treats. The menu at Jaber had both individual dishes, hot small snacks (salgados), and huge-family-style platters, they seemed to be doing very rapid turn over on large take-out plates for hungry families.
Of course we were pleased to see both kibbe and esfiha on offer at Jaber, both of which are pictured above. We sampled 3 types of esfihas, Za’atar, Cheese and Endive. The Za’atar esfiha really impressed us – the topping on the pastry crust was nothing but a solid layer of spice – Za’tar is a spice mix of thyme, oregano, sumac, sesame and salt – and the flavor of the esfiha was nothing short of explosive. Also on the menu were varieties of Esfiha that are “closed”, kind of a Brazilian/Lebanese take on Stromboli, with the pastry folded over the filling. Sao Paulo made us esfiha addicts! One thing about Brazil – they definitely have a lock on the pocket-sized savory pastry – who knew such myriad wonders even existed?