Updated: Sep 24
I could see the waiter hustling around with his hands full of plates as my stomach growled and craved the sizzling mandioca frita (fried cassava), that was being ordered left and right. The smell of meat being grilled paired perfectly with the fresh lemon taste of my caipirinha and together they seemed to be dancing to the tastiest melody possible.
“I got us another round of drinks and some farofa com linguiça for the table if you guys don’t mind,” said my cousin Helio, as he ordered the fried cassava flour with sausages. In Belo Horizonte, the city where I’m from, this is a typical night, any time of the week. BH (for short) has the highest concentration of bars per capita out of any city on the planet, and that is clearly embedded in the culture of those who live there. Every Mineiro, a person from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais (where BH is), knows that there is nothing better than leaving work and meeting up with your friends for a nice cold beer and some comida de buteco, the food that is served at these bars. Belo Horizonte is the culinary mecca of Brazil, and that is reflected on the dishes that are served in these bars — Mineiros know how to appreciate the high price and gourmet food, but we all know that there is nothing better than the fried cassava cubes you eat with a toothpick on the side of the street.
“I won’t eat much of it, I just came back from the gym,” I said, knowing that as soon as the plate was placed on our table, this statement would seize to exist. The cumulus of self-control is represented by the person who, in a situation like this, can manage to only eat one single piece of sausage or one little cube of cassava. For the rest of us, mere mortals, one cube turns into one plate and one plate becomes another portion, and once you realize your stomach is full and your mind is at peace. Sitting at Medeiros, one of my favorite bars and the server of what is in my opinion the best farofa (fried cassava flour) of Belo Horizonte, I began to think of how these establishments affect so much the culture of a Mineiro. In total, the city has about 14,000 bars spread all over the neighborhoods, where cachaça, a spirit made from sugarcane, takes over the menu followed also by wine, classic or artisanal beer, and our beloved food (much like the tapas in Spain). Butecos are casual and informal bars that host people from all classes and ages, and an important social mark and symbol of the city.
In Brazil, there’s the saying “BH não tem mar, mas tem bar,” meaning “BH doesn’t have an ocean, but has bars,” which in the country’s list of priorities for living a good life, is just as important. No one knows how to chill a beer better than a Mineiro, and every other person in Brazil acknowledges our essential contribution to the culinary heritage of the country. For the first 60 of the 18th century, gold exploration dominated the economy of Brazil, and people from many different regions migrated to the state of Minas Gerais, where most of the gold mines were located. This mixture of different cultures created the culinary profile of the region, with contributions from the Portuguese colonizers, the slaves from Africa, and the colonized indigenous people who lived in the region.
Most of our most distinct dishes have an elaborate story behind them, reflecting the multiculturalism that shaped the people who live there today. Feijoada, for example, is a good illustration of this mixture — it was elected national dish of Brazil and it consists of black beans and pieces of pork such as the ear or the feet, seasoned with onions and spices from the region. The story behind it brings us back to colonial times, where slaves from Angola and Mozambique were given very little to eat, only beans and the leftovers of the pork other people used to eat. The slaves then would boil the beans and add the pork scraps to the mixture, creating what is today such a delicious meal, also a symbol of butecos.
Minas Gerais is the land of Brazilian comfort food, the type of food that is accessible to all classes, and that brings people together at places such as bars. “In Minas, you go out to a restaurant in order to escape your country, and then you go downstairs to the nearest bar to feel home again,” says Lucas, a frequent customer of Jangal, one of the most popular bars in the city that plays live music and is known for their mini-burgers with beer dressing. He then adds: “You don’t find this type of food at restaurants, where you seat at your reserved table and order from a menu and everything — these foods are from the outside: Japanese, Italian, French, which are good as well. I feel like if they tried to bring Minas cuisine into these types of establishments, it wouldn't last a day — people here know that the food is part of the chaotic experience of the butecos, where you pay very little for poorly presented dishes that taste amazing. It just wouldn't be the same".
Every night spent at a buteco is one to remember — they provide me with the taste from home I long for whenever I’m away.
Us Mineiros are known in Brazil for living a good and relaxed life, our stomachs full and our relationships with one another true and content — and all that is perfectly understandable once you enter the reality of comfort food on a Wednesday night with your best friends and the freshness of a drink made with one of the strongest spirits I know. There’s a huge wave of people from Rio de Janeiro moving to Belo Horizonte in the past couple of years, and who could blame them? People are starting to realize that maybe bars are indeed better than the ocean.