People from the Arab world (particularly Lebanon and Syria) started coming to Brazil back in the late 19th Century due to overpopulation and persecution from the Ottoman Turks. Today most Arab Brazilians are fully integrated into Brazilian society, no longer speaking Arabic and playing a part in all aspects of society, from business and politics to football and acting.
One of the most obvious influences they have had on Brazil has been through their food. Here in Rio there are some great Syrian and Lebanese restaurants dotted around the place, but beyond that, there are a couple of snacks that are found almost everywhere.
Back in the UK, I would see these on menus as ‘Kibbeh’, but here in Brazil they usually spell it ‘Kibe’ (I don’t think either spelling is really ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – just different ways of trying to spell out the original Arabic كبة). Regardless of how you spell it, these things are good! The outer shell is a mix of bulgur wheat and minced beef – inside is a spiced filling of minced beef, onions and pine nuts.
As well as being delicious, Kibe are very convenient as they can be eaten without plate or cutlery and so fit perfectly with Brazil’s love of salgados (savoury snacks) such as coxinha, bolinhos de bacalhau and all the other tasty snacks served up as a light bite.
The word cru means raw, and that’s pretty much what you get here – raw minced beef mixed with onions, bulgur wheat, fresh mint, parsley and a bunch of middle eastern spices. I have to say, I like Kibe, but I love Kibe Cru! It has the same richness of steak tartare and the mint and onions make this a really delicious starter. As it involves raw meat, it’s one of those things that you should only eat at a place you trust (or better yet, make it yourself!).
Another Arabic lanchonete (snack bar) favourite is Esfiha. You sometimes see it spelled Esfirra (but remember two Rs make an H sound, so the pronunciation is the same) and just because I love the Arabic script, here it is: صفيحة. An Esfiha is a thin layer of soft, unleavened bread folded into a triangle around a filling (most commonly cheese or spiced minced beef). When esfihas are done well they are really delicious: light, tasty and very satisfying.
Both Kibe and Esfiha are popular beach snacks, usually sold by guys dressed in ‘Arab-style’ outfits (something like a Djellaba), working for companies with names like Ali Baba and Mustufa.
As with all the popular snacks, there are good versions and bad. If you’re on the beach you just take your chances, but if you’re looking for something more reliable while you’re in Rio, I have a recommendation for you! Rotisseria Sírio Libaneza in Largo do Machado. This place pretty unimpressive to look at, but it is well known for being one of the best places to get ‘Comida Árabe’. As luck would have it, this will be the next addition to the EatRio restaurant guide – coming soon!