São Paulo is one of the Americas’ most multicultural cities. Over 50% of its population claims some Italian descent, while many others have German, Portuguese, Eastern European, Jewish, Japanese or African ancestry. All these groups have left indelible marks on the city’s culture, particularly gastronomically. Going out for pizza or sushi, for example, are extremely popular activities, and both are now considered native Paulista fare.
Aside from Italian and Japanese, there is one group that has influenced São Paulo’s, and indeed Brazil’s, cuisine more than most. Perhaps surprising to some non-Brazilians, Arabic food is an elemental feature of the Brazilian gastronomic experience. While the north of Brazil has a longstanding link to Arabic food in the form of Acarajé, deep-fried balls made of ground beans, brought by West African slaves, and not dissimilar to falafels, the more recent immigration of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese and Syrians to the southern states popularised several Middle Eastern classics.
Beginning in the late-nineteenth century, Levantine emigration, mostly Christians escaping the Ottoman Empire, brought many Arabs to Brazil. Subsequently, textiles and clothing shops and factories became an important route to money and assimilation. Today, it is estimated that between 7-10 million Brazilians are of Lebanese descent, with around 4 million hailing in some form from Syria. Brazilian Arabs are a remarkably integrated group, with countless politicians (São Paulo has had three Arab mayors since 1993, and the current president, Michel Temer, is of Lebanese extract), and public figures.
Food, however, is the greatest symbol of Arab integration. Kibe, deep-fried balls of bulgur wheat, lamb or beef and spices are extremely popular, available at any snack counter across the country. Esfiha, small pastries topped with mince or cheese, similar to Turkish lahmacun, are equally ubiquitous, and there is even a fast food chain, Habib’s, dedicated to the delightful dish.
In order to fully experience the fantastic Lebanese (and Syrian) cuisine available in São Paulo, however, it is necessary to visit one of the many popular restaurants across the city. The perfect place to start is at Halim, a traditional joint established in 1973 by Lebanese immigrants and still run by the same family.
Situated just off the southern end of Avenida Paulista, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Halim is cheap and perpetually busy. Past the entrance, a large counter is filled with Lebanese sweets such as baklava and takeaway savoury classics, while Levantine deli products adorn the opposite wall. Behind the casual entrance, the restaurant fans out into a large dining room and, on our latest visit, at 2pm on a week day, we had to wait 10 minutes for a table.
It is definitely worth the queue and the noisy ambience. The best option is the individual meze selection (an oxymoron?), where the customer can choose six from a variety of Lebanese classics. After an excellent meat esfiha to start, which should always be eaten with a squeeze of lime, at least when in Brazil, our meze plates arrived. I opted for aubergine stuffed with rice and mince in tomato sauce, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ganoush, kofte and Moroccan rice with almonds, chicken, mince and herbs. All the dishes were well executed, the aubergines succulent, the hummus perfectly seasoned, and the baba ganoush smokey and creamy. Only the kofte was slightly disappointing, a bit too dry for my liking. A huge basket of flatbreads was provided, perfect not only for mopping up the various sauces, but to use as cutlery.
The popularity and ubiquity of Arabic food in Brazil is little known outside the country. Nevertheless, future visitors should seek it out, particularly when in São Paulo, a city that offers a breadth and quality of Middle Eastern cuisine to match any big city, and Halim provides an excellent introduction.