Something that really brings you in contact with the culture of the place you are visiting is eating like a local. Therefore, in this story, I will suggest a street food experience that is a “classic” of São Paulo’s culinary heritage: “the pastel.”
There is not a proper translation of the word “pastel” in English. Instead of translating, I will describe it so that you can understand what it is made of and find out the history behind its origin. Pastel consists of a rectangle-shape thin-crust "envelope," stuffed with a large variety of fillings. The dough, which is made basically with flour, is rolled till it gets thin enough to turn into an “envelope” form to hold the fillings; then, it is deep-fried. The most common savory fillings are cheese, ground beef, jam and cheese, palm heart, “pizza” toppings (mozzarella cheese, tomato, and oregano) and codfish. As we Brazilians love to fill, the fillings' list can grow as big as our culinary imagination allows. Sometimes you can find more than 30 sorts of fillings! Although it is a traditionally savory dish, it is possible to find some sweet versions of it. The most popular ones are guava jam and cheese or banana and chocolate.
As you can realize, the Brazilian pastel has nothing to do with the Portuguese “Pastel de Nata,” despite the strong heritage and great culinary influence we had from our discoverers. We could say that it has a similarity with the Indian samosa because it is savory; however, it is different in shape and filling, and especially in size!
To kill your curiosity, here is the story behind this food: way before the street food truck fever, more precisely in the 1940s, Japanese immigrants started to sell pastel in São Paulo city's street markets. The recipe was adapted from the Japanese gyoza, and sake was replaced by "cachaça" (cachaça is a Brazilian distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice, popularly known because of the famous Caipirinha drink).
The crispy and tasty snack became very popular in the city and state of São Paulo and later spread all over the country. Pastel is not only sold in street markets but also in “pastelarias”- a fast-food shop specialized in pastel, easily found in malls and commercial centers. Additionally to the original creation, a small version of pastel, what locals call mini-pastel, became a popular appetizer option in many bars and barbecue restaurants in the country. The possibilities to find this local delicacy have definitely increased!
So if you are in the city and want to have a bite, my advice is to go to a street market to experience the ultimate “paulistano” popular culinary culture. You can find, let’s say, an exaggerating filled version of pastel in our landmark food market: “Mercado de São Paulo,” which is warmly called “Mercadão,” and is located in the downtown area.
Street markets where you can buy fruit and vegetables are very popular in the city. Every neighborhood has one, and every street market has at least one pastel stall. You can check which day of the week the place you are visiting holds a street market (they usually take place from 7:00 am till 2:30 pm). In Jardins, for instance, at Lorena street, the food market takes place on Sundays. There you will be able to taste an authentic pastel made by Japanese families that have been passing this tradition from generation to generation.
Since 1979, the pastel maker José Hiromi Mori sells more than 30 flavors of this popular dish at the street market in the Pacaembu neighborhood. His tent, "Barraca do Zé" (Zé's Tent) as it is commonly known, is so popular that it became a traditional stop for pop food lovers. The food market takes place every Thursday and Saturday in the Pacaembu square, in front of Pacaembu Stadium.
If you are not able to attend a street food market, indeed you can have a pastel at one of the many pastelarias in the city. There are plenty of options everywhere. For instance, you can go to "Pastel da Maria" at the Pinheiros neighborhood. Maria, as Kuniko Yonaha is known, is a Japanese immigrant that started selling pastel in the street market. She also has some shops in the city, but they keep the same street food style. The ground beef one has been elected as one of the best in the city.
What are you waiting for? Indulge in the Brazilian culinary culture by tasting our typical pastels! Enjoy!
Did you like the travel story?
Get more! Subscribe to our monthly inspiration newsletter.