Black women finally getting their due in Rio de Janeiro’s restaurant scene

OPINION: Historically, Black women have always dominated food preparation in Brazil, and now, Black female chefs are moving into the culinary mainstream in Rio.

black women, restaurants, Rio de Janeiro,
The Selaron Steps in the historic center of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Adobe Stock Images)

Believe it or not, when I first arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 2015, there were very few “Black-owned” restaurants that I could frequent on a Friday or Saturday night. A “Black-owned” restaurant reflects the owner’s or chef’s culture through its food, decor or patrons. A decade ago, this label practically didn’t exist when categorizing Rio de Janeiro restaurants.

That’s not to say there weren’t Black culinary entrepreneurs in Rio de Janeiro. Historically, Black women have dominated food preparation in Brazil because it was a means to provide for their families. They cooked food for their families and their employers’ families as domestic servants. They cooked up food for the “quentinhas” that they sold to workers at lunchtime. 

But the opportunity to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, compete for culinary awards and garner writeups in the city’s mainstream publications proved out of reach for the people preparing most of the food in Rio de Janeiro.

Thankfully, due to the initiative of Black Brazilian women, that is all changing. Today, on any given night, I can choose between at least 10 Black-owned restaurants. Black women are finally getting their due.

Kaza 123

When Júlia Ferreira opened Kaza 123 with her two best friends in 2020, she wanted to create a space that replicated the family tradition of bringing people together through food. Kaza 123 is a cultural space with a bookstore, gallery and shop, but Ferreira’s Angurmê restaurant is the anchor. Her restaurant specializes in angu, a corn-based porridge served with savory toppings like beef, pork, chicken, and vegetables. For many Afro-Brazilians, the cheap but filling delicacy was their primary food source until recently. An early 19th century painting by Jean Debret shows Black women serving Angu to Black men in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Ferreira is also a graphic designer, so Kaza 123 features collages of famous Black Brazilians across its walls.

Yayá Comidaria Pop Brasileira 

Chef Andressa Cabral conquered a feat few Black chefs have achieved in Rio de Janeiro  — owning and operating a restaurant in the city’s tony south zone area. She practices the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion, so the menu features “Black” Brazilian food — Inajá fish, which is covered with smoked shrimp and a coconut palm oil sauce; chicken and okra; moqueca, a coconut milk and palm oil shrimp stew. Cabral also co-hosts two food-related television shows and is often tapped to create menus for restaurants in cultural spaces.

Dida’s Bar 

When Dida Nascimento opened her restaurant and bar in 2016 in a prime dining location in Rio de Janeiro, the retired economist broke long-established barriers for Black women entrepreneurs. Dida created a space for Black people to congregate for drinks and samba music. In 2020, the restaurant moved across the street to a location four times — a testament to its success. 

When patrons enter Dida’s Bar, they encounter a wall filled with photos of legendary Black Brazilians. The restaurant serves African food every Wednesday, and the location features a buffet brunch every Saturday. In 2021 her son Kanu Akin Andrade created a small booklet that included Rio de Janeiro’s most prominent Black-owned restaurants.

G&G Gourmet

Georgia Gomes dedicated 30 years of her life to samba dancing — her first passion. Her dancing skills led her to dance as a passista for several of Rio de Janeiro’s top samba schools. It wasn’t until 2015 that she discovered her second passion — gastronomy. She became famous for her food when she started selling her Bobo de Camarão (a stew made of shrimp, palm oil, cassava, and spices) at various events. In 2020, Georgia founded GG Gourmet, an antique shop and restaurant specializing in African references, in Morro da Conceição. The space has become the preferred restaurant of revelers at the Monday night Pedra do Sal party.

Afro Gourmet 

Dandara Batista’s Afro Gourmet restaurant won the Best Restaurant award in 2022’s inaugural  Gastronomia Preta (Black Gastronomy) awards. She defines her work as gastronomy of resistance, a way to rescue and connect with her ancestry. Batista studies African food and infuses this knowledge into the menu, representing dishes from Cape Verde, Congo, and Brazil’s most African state — Bahia.

Agô Bar da Encruza

Kananda Soares is not new to entrepreneurship. She launched the Favela Hype brand in 2002, and soon after it evolved into a concept store/bar in Rio’s bohemian Santa Teresa restaurant. Her latest venture, Agô Bar da Encruza, connects patrons to the Afro-Brazilian religious roots of Brazil through food, drinks, music, and art. All works of art in the restaurant are by black artists. The symbol of Exu, the Candomblé god of crossroads, is engraved on the entrance on the floor. The menu features foods commonly found at Candomblé gatherings like Vatapá (shrimp stew),  Acarajé (black bean fritters) and angu. The drink Vulgo Malvadão (big bad guy), for example, mixes gin, red fruits, sparkling wine, and pepper.

Kiratiana Freelon is an independent journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her reporting focuses on social injustice, Afro-Brazilian communities, and Brazil’s dynamic economic and political landscape. The Harvard and Cuny Graduate School of Journalism graduate has worked for the New York Times and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Essence Magazine, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and other publications. She will publish an Afro Rio Travel and Culture Guide in 2023.

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