We hear it every time we bring up the V-word: “But it’s impossible to be a vegetarian in Rio!” Nonsense. Not only is it possible to eat an earthy diet here in Rio, it’s getting so trendy that carnivorous cariocas are increasingly forgoing their weekend churrasco (grilled meat on a stick) for the kaleidoscope of couve (collard greens), cogumelos (mushrooms), tofu and all of its soy brethren. (Remember: Brazil is a soy powerhouse, one reason why China surpassed the U.S. to become its largest trading partner.)
Over the past two decades, Brazil has soared toward being a global breadbasket, as it has become a major exporter of products like beef, poultry, grain and sugarcane. The Economist called the country the world’s first “tropical food-giant,” as it has caught up with the global “big five” grain producers – the U.S., Canada, Australia, Argentina and Australia – which all have temperate climates.
In that abundant land of milk and honey and açaí are plenty of native foods to keep a vegetarian strong and satisfied: cashew nuts; brown beans, black beans and string beans; shiitake mushrooms and tropical fruits from A (the tangy açerola) to X (xixá, a thick-shelled fruit from Brazil’s cerrado savannah).
While Rio de Janeiro’s vegetarian options are often lunch-only buffet-style joints (and we like those too), we’ve been intrigued by the rise of a few more boutique à la carte places. And we appreciate that Prana Cozinha Vegetariana is one of those that does not come with boutique prices.
One of the restaurant’s other major draws is its location. The cozy venue sits alongside the São Judas Tadeu plaza in the Cosme Velho neighborhood. There’s a nice playground where kids slide and swing and young people take selfies with the upright Christ statue perched far in the sky above. Next to the plaza is the spot where tourists get the train for the steep climb up the corcovado mount to see the monument. (Pro tip: Save money and get some refreshing exercise by instead doing the hike up to the Dona Marta lookout point and helipad, which also sits above a famous favela by the same name. You’ll start in the charming residential neighborhood along the Ladeira da Escurra street just shortly after the train station.)
Prana offers two main dishes at lunch, always served with a starter salad. You can add on one of their freshest of juices (and this is that rare Rio eatery where you don’t need to remind them to not add sugar to what is already naturally sweet). Our favorite is the maracujá (passion fruit) with cayenne, which is sweetened with apple juice.
On a recent Saturday we tried their light but punchy mushroom bobó (a coconut milk stew) and brown bean bowl feijoada, which tastes a bit like smoky chili. We liked the pan-tossed shredded savory couve on the side served with molho a campanha, diced tomatoes, onions and parsley. The latter two items are routine in a Brazilian family kitchen and a reminder that satisfying vegetarian dishes are lurking quietly on the corners of even the most meat-and-potato Brazilian tables.
For dessert we had a pudding-style cocada (when you get this on the street, it will often be a sugary coconut bark) and a chocolate cupcake that was the most impressive vegan dessert we’ve ever had.
Partner Ammi Brandão said one of their most popular dishes has been the ceviche de cajú (made with cashew fruit, also called cashew apple) served with black rice. During the evenings, the restaurant functions as a delivery service for sandwiches and juices.
Started by three men with a bent on fitness and clean living, the not-yet-a-year-old kitchen takes healthy consumption and responsible waste disposal to standards hardly seen in this city, which is as naturally beautiful as it is unnaturally polluted. They shop at organic fruit and vegetable fairs that rotate around the city on a weekly basis and also pick their herbs from a nearby urban horta – it’s on top of the plaza and often guarded by a chatty senhora. Routine clients can buy a glass jar to refill on juices, and their to-go boxes, down to the plastic bags they are carried out in, are made of composted material.
If Prana has a defect it is that it is small – expect an hour-long wait on the weekends. It’s a shame that industrialized sodium snack foods, soft drinks, sedentary lives, obesity and diabetes are easier to find in breadbasket Brazil than its native fresh greens, fruit juices and endless hikes and plazas. We hope Prana’s lines and prices are the start of a cleaner approach to consumption.