Recife, Pernambuco: Jewel of the Atlantic

Take Rio’s beaches, Salvador’s colonial and colorful monuments and you find yourself in Recife located in the state of Pernambuco.

Recife’s name translates to ‘reef’ as its coast is born with one of mother nature’s gifts: crystal-clear reef pools.

Famous for its beaches (but more so in southern Boa Viagem where you can swim), Recife’s coast is beautiful despite being famously plagued with shark-infested waters.

Signs warning swimmers and surfers alike are found wherever you are on the beach, but this doesn’t discourage locals to find a spot to put their feet in shallow water. On weekends, the beach is packed with umbrellas and plastic lounge chairs where you have to find a good ‘sun’ spot before the locals arrive. Here, they like frevo (a typical music and dance, coming from the Portuguese ferver – to boil, a fast-brass music inspiring energetic dancing, typically with a multi-color umbrella) alongside their morning brew of coffee, juice even beer (one Brazilian told me, beer is like water here to the locals).

Some fresh sugarcane juice perhaps? Though it’s super sweet.

But they can’t drink alone without some food, right?

Peixe Agulha – small version of a swordfish, lightly battered and fried with a dash of lemon juice.

Something with more consistency that I tried was the Simfonia maritima – a stew made with 10 different kinds of seafood. Beautiful!

It came alongside Pirão– seafood stew mixed with manioc flour giving it a mushy consistency. Mais pesada (quite heavy).

Recife also boasts the Mercado São José, respectively at the center of the old town, where you can find almost anything from artisanal carved work, to local produce like fish, meat and some never encountered fruits and vegetables. The market of São José is rather long and divided in distinctive sections. Vendors also sell outside the walls of the market, shouting and selling what they can, everyday of the week.

Some local fish and seafood are sold.



Some other interesting produce I noticed:

Maxixe, a cucumber with spikes, same consistency as a cucumber but grown in northeastern Brazil.

Acerola, a cherry that is not sweetened until turned into jam; when eaten raw it is quite sour

They also sell tree barks of various kinds to infuse in tea…wondering if you could airy foam with it as an accompaniment to a dish?

Noni, this looked completely alien to me; it was even soft-to-touch which creeped me out, but it is a very sweet fruit with a rich consistency.

Seeing these raw produce definitely made me hungry. Luckily, for me, I was given a personal tour of the cities of Recife and Olinda and was able to try very fresh and unique dishes of the region.

Guaiamum Gigante (on Rua Atlantica) serves freshly cooked seafood right in front of Recife beach. The place, I was told is open until 4 am and since the demand for their soft-shell crab is so large,  they no longer have to time to put them on display at the public aquarium in the restaurant.

Crab, when they are raw; they are sold in bulks wrapped in leaves of the swamp.

I got the chance to try these crabs, and wow – was I blown away.

Casquinha de Siri. The meat of the crab is boiled then scooped out and mixed with Pirao (crab stock, manioc flour) then cooked until the starch becomes sticky.

Arrumadinhi. A large dish composed of white beans and cheese, salsa of tomato and onions, fried dried meat and shrimp and pumpkin couscous. An awesome melange of flavors.

Restaurant Paraxaxá (Indigenous word for the place to eat) is also within the area and serves traditional food from Pernambuco. In this restaurant, I focused more on meat.

First with the staple food of Pernambuco. I noticed different types of couscous, corn and rice.

Cuscuz of Tapioca. We saw this in the Rio post, but Pernambuco is the heart of the Tapioca.

Tapioca ensopada con leite de coco (tapioca soaked in coconut milk)

Cuscuz matuto (mixed with peas, tomatoes, carrots and spinach)

Cuscuz ensopado con leite do coco (mixed with coconut milk)

Arroz maluco (rice with chickpea)

Munguza doce (sweet corn in coconut milk)

Pamonha (grated corn steamed in its leaf)

Xerem salgado (corn grain cooked in vegetable stew)

Now the meat…
Pernil (roasted leg of pork, sweet and crunchy)

Carne de sol (sun-dried meat with onions)

I was surprised to see meat from the sheep family. I found the state to be quite flat in terms of land, but traditionally people eat a lot of goat, a meat that is much stronger in taste and smell compared to lamb.

Cabrito Guisado (goat stew, tasted like beef bourguignon but more smokey)

Linguiça de Bode (goat sausage, quite heavy)

Buchada de bode (goat stew where the organs are wrapped in the stomach lining)

Vaca atolada (beef with manioc stew)

Desserts…yes, its not over.

Sagu de coco cremoso (sago with cream of coconut)

Arroz doce (rice with milk pudding and cinnamon)

Canjica (sweet corn cake)

Bolo de rollo (cake rolled with guava jam)

Bollo de rapadura (Sugarcane cake)

Bolo de Maxaxeira (Manioc cake)

The same basic ingredients appear again and again. It grows easily here and is affordable to all people, both rich and poor. Despite their financial differences, when it comes to food, they share the same likings and traditions within the family.

An inside look into a family dessert: condensed milk cake – creamy and fantastic!

Despite all the things I tried in Recife, one restaurant name kept on popping up: Oficina do Sabor, a quaint open-air restaurant up and running for 18 years under Chef Cesar Santos, at the top of a hill in UNESCO World Heritage Olinda. Locals said that if I only had time for one meal, it would be hear. Inside, the restaurant’s entrance is adorned with hand-painted dishes, something of a treat for clients who order the special dish of the year (The chef changes the special dish every year and a half) and for those who order it, they get to go home with one of their own. Consistently one of the best restaurants in Recife and one of the best chefs in Brazil, Santos wows clients with his ideas.

He was the first to incorporate the open kitchen in Brazil

Beautiful patio views of Recife



Upon recommendation, I decided to try Brazilian wine.  Pernambuco has the same climate as California but has 3 more harvests, meaning more grapes are produced, and more minerals are available . It was light, it smelled like a young Burgundy wine and tasted woody. In general, reminded me of a Mercurey Red from Burgundy. Good choice. 




To start, he offered us a little tasting of some of his favorites:

Queijo Coalho (cheese made with raw milk) with garlic chips and deep-fried basil and mint. The Cheese was scrumptious on the outside and smooth and melting on the inside.

Casquinha de Siri, the soft-shellcrab meat brought me back to Thailand with hints of curry, and chilies. 

The most popular dish is Jerimum recheado com camarão ao pitanga (pumpking filled with prawn and Pitanga sauce – also known as Suriname cherry). If Pitanga is your to your liking, you can exchange it for maracuja (passion-fruit), or coco (coconut).  

Very light spinach rice to accompany the pumpkin

Pavê de Goiaba – Guava cake layered with chantilly, cookies and marshmallow – Absolute heaven

Baba de  moça – Brazilian dessert made of egg yolk, coconut milk and caramel. I’m not a fan of anything with coconut, but he used a more subtle and different taste of coconut; that of green coconut. Writing this now, I am still full from the meal…

Queijo Coalho grilled with sugarcane 

My trip to Recife was unfortunately short, but during the 4 days I was here, I got a sense of what the people, culture and food was like. Though Salvador had beautiful beaches, it didn’t boast frutos do mar (seafood) as much as Recife did. Here, people are proud of them, they boast about how good it is and point to you along the beach or main road where to try the best. They’re not trying to trick you to enter to a friend’s restaurant, they are all good and they want you to try and see how good it is and then spread the word.  Any fish or seafood is widely available, you name it: crab, soft-shell crab, langoustine, 10 kinds of shrimp, 3 kinds of crab, octopus, sting ray, red mullet, seabass and that’s just 10 percent of the list – and they’re available all year round.

Recife is one of Brazil’s biggest cities with an interesting and rich history melding European (Dutch and Portuguese), African and indigenous influences. It would have been nice to explore a little bit more of the state and even visit the infamous archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, the protected aquatic Eden with world-class diving. Perhaps during a second round to Brazil.

For now though, I move up north, to the state of Ceara and Brazil’s jewel coastline.


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