In Rio de Janeiro, diners seeking an exciting meal are increasingly heading to the city's favelas—the possibility of catching a stray bullet be damned. Rio's favelas, long ruled by violent drug gangs, are undergoing a controversial, government-enacted cleanup that some citizens say has done more harm than good. But the so-called "pacification" process has changed public opinion of the neighborhoods enough to draw both tourists and more well-off locals, who are flocking to the safer favelas looking for a bite to eat.
According to a summer article appearing in The Guardian, Rio's favelas are currently the city's "hottest place to eat." Since 2008, shortly after the announcement that the city would host the 2014 World Cup, Rio's local government has been cleaning up the favelas—a process which has accelerated in anticipation of the summer 2016 Olympics, which Rio will host. Residents of the favelas—informal urban settlements where, in the absence of formal governmental regulation, a brisk and violent drug trade has flourished since the 1980s—have capitalized on the changing image of their neighborhoods, establishing an increasing number of casual restaurants that cater to increasing favela food traffic.
"It's becoming almost like a tourist destination," said Almir Da Fonseca, a Rio native and Brazilian culinary historian who teaches at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus in Napa Valley. "In the last few years, as the government has been cleaning up the favelas, people have gotten a little bit more courageous."
In Rio's largest favela, you can choose between six Japanese restaurants, Bloch said.
Restaurant proprietors in the favelas are happy to see the increase in visitors—and the cash they spend—resulting from the perception that the favelas are now safer, Da Fonseca said. But the process of pacification has been an intensely fraught one, marked by violent clashes between the UPP—the Police Pacifying Unit that's sent into the favelas to seize gangs' weapons and drug caches—and favela residents. And as the city continues to ramp up its preparations for the 2016 Olympics—building sports complexes and repairing existing roads, as well as laying down new ones—it has forcibly evicted more than 19,000 low-income families whose houses lay in the construction path, according to Amnesty International Brazil. The summer run-up to the World Cup was marked by nationwide protests and demonstrations, which are likely to recur when the Olympic games come to town.
"It hasn't been a completely peaceful process, but it's definitely getting better," Da Fonseca said. Regardless of whether or not the pacification methods have been justified, they've loosened up the borders of some favelas, where a younger generation of bar and restaurant owners is making an effort to diversify menu offerings and appeal to both tourists and more adventurous locals.
"They inherit the bars of their fathers, and instead of just serving regulars they're interested in opening their doors to non-favela residents, too."
In addition to traditional Brazilian bar foods such as grilled sausages and onions and Portuguese-derived salt cod croquettes, some cooks are trying out more experimental, international dishes, Da Fonseca said.
Sergio Bloch, a Rio filmmaker who compiled the 2013 Gastronomic Guide to the Favelas of Rio, concurred. To put together the book's list of 22 best favela restaurants, Bloch and his research team ate in about a hundred bars and cafes, he said, and were surprised by both the diversity and the quality of the food they tasted.
"In Rocinha"—Rio's largest favela—"you can choose between six Japanese restaurants, and in Tabajaras I ate one of the best pizzas of my life," he said.
Overall, though, most favela residents see the pacification process as a good thing, said Peter Lucas, a professor at NYU's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the author of Viva Favela: Ten Years of Photojournalism, Human Rights, and Visual Inclusion in Brazil.
"These people don't want to live in a parallel world," he said. "They want to be able to come and go, and they want outsiders to be able to come and go, too. That's certainly a lot easier to do when the entrance ways to these communities are no longer guarded by armed drug dealers."
When it comes to dining, Lucas is quick to point out that the small handful of the favelas have been cleaned up enough to attract a tourist trade are pretty well sanitized—"we're not talking about really tough places"—and that the vast majority of about 1,000 micro-neighborhoods are still far too dangerous to head to for a bite to eat.