Oct 23

Arabs in Brazil

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.

kibe kibbeh كبة

These little torpedo-shaped beauties are really good! In theory these should be made with lamb, but I think most places in Brazil use beef instead. Source


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.


Kibe Cru

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!).


Use the pitta bread to scoop up some kibe cru, a little squeeze of lime and you’ve got a delicious starter to share! Source



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.


They might not look very impressive, but let me tell you, these are seriously good.


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.

comida arabe na praia

This is a very common sight on the beaches of Rio. These guys carry these large boxes full of esfihas and kibe plus a multitude of sauces. To hear the sounds of the beach traders, click here!


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!



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  1. The Gritty Poet

    Humm, كبة and صفيحة : where should I start, just where should I start (pondering). Aham, Tom, never go full Lonely Planet – never go full Lonely Planet.

    1. tomlemes

      Ha ha! What can I say? I’m a sucker for Arabic script, I think it looks great!

  2. Andrew Francis

    Tom, do you actually get the outer shell and filling in kibes in Rio? Most places In Sao Paulo use the same outer shell ingredients all throughout (and pine nuts aren’t very common anyway – or has that changed?). I only noticed the different filling here in London. Probably more authentic that way…

    1. tomlemes

      Hi Andrew,

      It’s variable – I guess in slightly crappier places or on the beach, they are normally fairly uniform throughout, but the kibes I get at work have a very noticeable outer shell and inner filling. As for the pinenuts, I think the top-end Syrian/Lebanese restaurants use them, but I’m sure most lanchonetes don’t (have you seen the price of pinenuts here? Seriously expensive! :( ).

  3. Alex

    Gotta tell you, I LOVE Arab food. SO good. Just to illustrate this, I think the best way to die would be drowning in Tanhini sauce, just saying.

    Anyway, the whole Arab immigration to Brazil is such a strange/interesting phenomenon. Even the Arabs in their entirety are definitely a muslim group, that influence seems to be almost non-existant in Brazil even though Brazil is without doubt one of the most ”Arab” countries in the world in terms of population. More Lebanese than Lebanon for a fact, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their were more Syrians than Syria in Brazil (I’m not sure on this one though.) Just another ”Brazil has more (insert nationality) than anywhere else” stat!

    With the recent rumblings of Civil War in Lebanon arising (like in the past 2 days), I wonder if Brazil will see another wave of Lebanese migrants….it seems like the logical place for them to go and hopefully Brazil opens her arms to them.

    1. tomlemes

      Hey Alex – I totally love it too! My family and I lived in Jerusalem for a year when I was young and so I had a very early introduction to a lot of the best Arab food out there. So many good flavours!

      It’s a horrible shame what’s going on in Syria right now and and so sad to see Lebanon being drawn in… :(

      1. Alex

        Thats so awesome that you lived there!!!! Wow! Was it just for the experience or was it work related?

        1. tomlemes

          My dad was (and is) an ophthalmologist and when I was little he decided to take a sabbatical working in a hospital in Jerusalem. I remember it as one of the most weird, wonderful and rich years in my life (and the food was awesome 😉 )

  4. Len

    It should also be pointed out that many eastern Mediterranean migrants settled in Brazil in the 1950s when Nasser took over in Egypt and kicked out many Jewish families from that country. Brazil gave many of them shelter and they has settled and thrived in the country, bringing with them the food of that part of the world, kibbehs, falafel, etc.

    1. BrazilianSoul

      One good thing about Brazil is that we are not xenophobic. In Europe those people would have never been assimilated and would live in ghettos, just like it happens at Paris’ outskirts. here They were treated as one of us and integrated to our society without problems.

      1. tomlemes

        Hi BrazilianSoul – that’s a really interesting point you raise. For a long time in the UK we subscribed to something called ‘Multiculturalism’ which basically said that people from different cultures should not have to assimilate into the British culture. It assumed that people would want to keep their own language and, some people argued it caused some communities to stay apart from the rest of the population.

        I’m not sure how true that was, but certainly there has been a tendency for communities to stay apart more there than here in Brazil. It’s amazing how people become so totally Brazilian! Back in the part of London that I lived, all the public offices would have every sign in about 10 different languages to suit all the different communities of the area! Kind of crazy! :)

    2. tomlemes

      Hi Len,

      Thanks for that information – very interesting. I remember learning about Nasser and the days of the Suez Crisis at school, but of course the more obscure side-effects are not mentioned in a general history lesson! :) Isn’t it amazing how an event on the other side of the world can have a consequence like this?

      Also I think it’s something that Brazil can be very proud of – to offer shelter to people who are no longer able to live in their original country. Back in England there are some people who are unhappy that the UK is accepting such people (we call them ‘asylum seekers’), but I have always been very proud that countries like UK and Brazil (and many others of course) are offering a safe future for some people who have become refugees. Of course there is a big list of people who need help and many people waiting to have their asylum request processed, but on a more general level, we should all be proud to help people out from other countries. One small benefit we receive is the great cultural contributions (such as food, music, etc) that the refugees bring to our countries. :)

  5. BrazilianSoul

    I read your interview at O Globo. it’s crazy how much expensive this city has become. Last weekend we went to a place called “The fifties” at Shopping Leblon and the bill was 110 reais for 2 people. It’s not that expensive, but if you consider that we ate simple HAMBURGUERS and ICECREAM and COKES it is a lot of money indeed. It’s not hard to understand why there are so many poor people here. if the middle and upper class strive to pay for things, imagine the poor… I blame on the taxes.

    1. tomlemes

      I often think the same thing – when I see the prices for properties, cars, and so many other things here, I wonder who are the people actually buying these things! I guess I have quite a nice job, but I could never afford to buy a car. As for an apartment? Forget it! :( So how do people with lower salaries have a chance?

      I don’t know the exact figures, but I heard that a lot of tax in brazil is on things you purchase – that means that everyone suffers and people who earn less money suffer more. In the UK, most of the tax is taken from the salary. This means (in theory) that people who earn more money, pay more tax. Faz Sentido né? :)

      1. BrazilianSoul

        It does make sense. But I believe our politicians don’t really want to take our poor people out of poverty, they want to keep them as poor as they have always been while throwing social programmes like “bolsa familia”, “prouni”, “Brasil Carinhoso”.It’s like the poor were the cattle, and the politicians rulling the country were the saviour herders. And the cattle end up voting and electing those herders forever. Sadly,It’s like that in most Latin America, except for Chile, our first world neighbour where a BMW costs the same as in the US and taxes are incredibly low.

        1. tomlemes

          That’s a really interesting point of view and one I have heard from several people. I remember a Brazilian friend and I were talking once about how many of Brazil’s problems could be improved (maybe not solved completely, but certainly improved at least) through better education. She turned to me and said “Why would the politicians want poor people to be better educated? It suits them very nicely to have a populace with low levels of education.”

          For me it was an amazing thing to even think about and it makes me feel very badly towards the rich politicians who continue to steal through corruption. A terrible situation and difficult to know how to change things.

          1. Andrew Francis

            I don’t know how to change things either but there must be some clues in history. For example, life must’ve been just as hard (harder?) for poor people in England during Dickensian times and in France around the French revolution and that was only a couple of centuries ago give or take. Somehow the living standards in those countries improved for the majority of the population and, maybe it’s the cynic in me but, I don’t believe for one minute that the change came from the ruling classes out of the goodness of their hearts. Ultimately, I think the change came about by people realizing that they can be even better off if other people around them are also better off.

        2. Cesar

          “But I believe our politicians don’t really want to take our poor people out of poverty, they want to keep them as poor as they have always been while throwing social programmes like “bolsa familia”, “prouni”, “Brasil Carinhoso”.It’s like the poor were the cattle, and the politicians rulling the country were the saviour herders. And the cattle end up voting and electing those herders forever.”

          Sabe o que me revolta em comentários como esse?

          Não é a falta de conhecimento acerca da realidade vivenciada pela esmagadora maioria dos brasileiros ou mesmo as sucessivas camadas de velhos preconceitos, clichés e estereótipos que abundam em frases desse tipo. Tudo isso pode ser facilmente desmontado caso olhe-se, mesmo que por um breve instante, para a realidade factual.

          O que me revolta mesmo é a prepotência embutida nesse tipo de discurso: “voto consciente”, só meu; o teu – e mais especificamente, o do “pobre” – não passa de mera negociata movida por interesse venal.

          Programas sociais como o Bolsa Família fazem, na esfera política, exatamente o contrário do que você imagina, Braziliansoul.

          Especialmente em cidades pequenas, interioranas, onde a administração pública e a empresa do cacique local – usualmente um latifundiário cuja família domina a política há gerações – são as únicas fontes de renda possíveis, o Bolsa Família cria um eixo econômico alternativo: o povo começa a ganhar dinheiro, e na esteira disso logo surgem pequenos negócios, os quais, por sua vez, começam a empregar pessoas da região – minando assim ao menos parte do domínio daquelas famílias tradicionais sobre a política local.

          Só esses programas resolvem o problema? Não. O valor pago é mínimo, e por si só garante apenas algumas refeições. Porém, em larga escala acabam gerando emprego e dinamizando a economia local, além de trazer algum alento para aqueles que realmente precisam – uma pequena esperança de que é possível superar a pobreza.

          Só pra constar, uma curiosidade: o valor do benefício básico pago via Bolsa Família é de R$70,00 por mês por família. Esse dinheiro não paga nem os dois hamburguers, sorvetes e cookies da sua visita ao Shopping.

          Diante disso, não é o valor bruto dos benefícios pagos pelo governo que faz os pobres continuarem votando nele, e sim o seu valor simbólico: é a primeira vez desde a redemocratização que um governo estabelece como prioridade – e leva a cabo – o combate à miséria. Os pobres votam em quem se dispõe a representar os interesses deles – nada mais democrático.

          1. tomlemes

            Olá Cesar – muito obrigado pelo seu comentario. Foi muito interessante e faz pensar. Os efeitos dos planos como Bolsa Família podem ser amplas e não só financial. Sociologia e economia são assuntos interessantes e complexas. Preciso ler e aprender mais sobre isso.

      2. Andrew Francis

        It’s interesting how a post on Arab food turns into a discussion on prices. :)

        Tom, no wishing to delve into your personal finances, but do you think you really couldn’t afford to buy a car or do you just not value a car that much to pay Brazilian prices? I’ll give you a counter example: here in the UK, I’ve been known to say, “I don’t know how people can go on skiing holidays every winter. I could never afford to do that.” In reality, I probably could, I just don’t value skiing that much. I’d rather use that money to go back to Brazil every year to see friends and family.

        1. tomlemes

          Andrew, you’re probably right. I guess it would be possible (once I waded through the red-tape!) to afford some monthly payment plan – assuming nothing changed for the next 3 or 5 years then I could eventually pay it off. But I work on quite a short-term contract, so it wouldn’t be a very smart move with so much uncertainty in the future.

          Having said all that, your point about priorities is spot-on (I clearly give a lot away on this blog!) – I’d far rather take the bus and then spend all that ‘car money’ on travel, nice meals, boozing, going out and living life 😀

  6. Amanda

    I actually cried a little. I miss esfirra sooooo much, it’s insane. And kibe cru in a famous pub in Brasilia, you’ll never guess… called Libanus! Kibe cru, cervejinha e amigos. Quinta-feira a noite, depois da labuta. Passando o tempo planejando o final de semana… ah, saudade.

    1. tomlemes

      Aw Amanda! Too sweet! :) Nunca fui à Brasília, mas parece otimo como você descreveu.

  7. Dea

    Hey Tom!

    A friend of mine recommended your blog on a post today and I am really enjoying it! It brings a completely fresh look (at/over?) our culture, “um olhar não acomodado”, if you know what I mean… =D

    I am a paulistana who got tired of Sao Paulo, but I have to admit it has its qualities… restaurants are on top of the list! So, if you are planning to visit us again and would allow me to suggest a nice restaurant, I would strongly recommend Almanara. It is not the cheapest one, but definitely worth the money! Best esfilhas in town! I don’t like kibe cru, but it is very popular as well. And do not miss their tabule! You are gonna love it!


    1. tomlemes

      Hi Dea – thanks, it’s so nice to hear that you’re enjoying the blog! I’ve been a little lazy this week, but normally I post something new every few days.

      I will definitely be visiting São Paulo again, so I am very grateful for the recommendation. It looks great!

      But tell me, you got bored of São Paulo? I was surprised when I read that, but then I realised I kind of got bored of London, so we have something in common! 😉 Did you move abroad?

      Anyway, I look forward to hearing more from you if you feel like commenting again. Do you write a blog yourself?

      1. Dea

        Hi Tom!

        Yep, I got bored of SP after 21 years… and I have been “pipocando” since then. 😉

        It has been a while, I’m 32 now! But I do go back there every once in a while! It has its charm, I just felt like it wasn’t for me anymore. I am currently waiting for an immigration process…

        For now, I just update one of my blogs and it is written in portuguese, but If you feel like reading it, here it goes: frozenbird.blogspot.com.br

        I’ll keep coming for a quick bite… (does it mean something bad? I hope not… lol)

        1. tomlemes

          Ha ha, it doesn’t mean anything rude! :)

          I love your blog – it seems we are fellow bird enthusiasts. Also it is great practice for me to read (and comment) in Portuguese. Volte sempre (especialmente quando você estiver com fome rs).

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