Huw Jones weighs up the merits of eating out the Brazilian way…
My ears prick up at the very mention of food, so I was intrigued to learn of ‘comida por quilo’, an increasingly popular way to lunch in Brazil. Literally meaning ‘food by the kilo’, this is a system whereby diners help themselves to a buffet and then pay for their food by weight. But will it ever catch on over here in the UK?
These colourful, buzzing quilo restaurants are near ubiquitous in Brazil, typically serving a large variety of homely Brazilian dishes including grilled meats, vegetables, pastries, casseroles and nourishing bean and meat stews such as Brazilian national dish feijoada – which you really must try if you ever get the chance. Once you’ve piled your plate high, you weigh and pay.
For me, it’s not just about the wealth of choice on offer though – the quilo concept appeals for its value for money, too. Everything is the same price per 100 grams, whether it be black beans, mashed potato, salad or steak. This pay-by-weight system ensures you pay for what you get and nothing more – all fair and square unless your eyes are bigger than your belly. It’s a great option if you’re only after a quick lunch, and you won’t end up gorging just to get your money’s worth. Plus, it’s always nice to get to see and smell the delights on offer before choosing. The quilo concept has also proved a hit with vegetarians, not only because it offers alternatives to the meat-dominated dishes typical of South American cuisine, but because the vegetarian options are generally lighter than their meat counterparts, so you can get your five-a-day, and then some. Choose wisely though – load your plate with something heavy like mashed potato, and you’ll lose out.
Perhaps it’s because lunch is a bigger deal in Brazil, and a slightly more leisurely affair, but por quilo hasn’t quite taken off in the UK yet. There are some quilo restaurants in London sought out by Brazilian expatriates, but to the wider dining public they seem merely something of an exotic novelty. Maybe this will change in time – after all, there’s a recession out there, and eating por quilo is cheap as well as fast and fuss-free.
Competition between these Brazilian eateries has been building for a decade or so now, meaning prices are low. At the time of writing, 100 grams of food in your typical Sao Paulo or Rio restaurant would cost you R$3.5 (a little over £1). Given that a nicely crammed plate would most likely weigh in at about 400 to 500 grams, that’s just £5 or so for a wholesome, varied meal – not bad at all.
Some say quilo restaurants can lack atmosphere as diners can come and go fairly quickly, but I disagree. On a recent visit to see my brother, who was working in Brazil, I ate at a little place called A Portinha – a delightful self-service restaurant in the laid-back coastal village of Trancoso, in the north-eastern state of Bahia. I suppose my experience was rather rose-tinted as a tourist, but eating outside at a wooden table under a large tree, overlooking the colourful village green and enjoying some moqueca (slow-cooked seafood stew), I felt as if I had the essence of Brazil in the palm of my hand.
With the next Olympics and World Cup being held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has a unique opportunity to introduce visitors from all over the world to its wonderful culinary culture. Perhaps we’ll even see a rise in the number of Brazilian-style eateries popping up in the UK and serving delicious native dishes. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.