Brazilian Grilled Cheese Skewers Bring the Taste of Rio Home

Brazilian-style cheese skewers on a grill, with blistered grill marks on the cheese

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

This spring, I had the good fortune to spend a sunny, sweltering month in Rio de Janeiro. On my first trip to the beach, I asked my Brazilian friends if we should swing by the grocery store to pick up some snacks, envisioning the carioca equivalent of my go-to American beach snacks. (I’m all about the Chex Mix, Smartfood cheddar popcorn, and some ripe, juicy watermelon.)

They brushed me off as they loaded surfboards and beach chairs into the trunk—there would be plenty of purveyors at the beach selling food and beer; no need to bring our own. And sure enough, there were nearly as many vendors on the beach as there were sunbathers, selling Budweisers, fresh coconuts, and bags of Globos, the iconic Brazilian crunchy yucca cracker.

Given that grilling is such a prominent part of Brazilian dining culture, it was no real surprise to also spot hawkers milling about with small, portable grills, setting up shop at the feet of their patrons and slinging skewers by the half dozen. The result was a parade of grilled meats—coração de frango (chewy chicken hearts), picanha (super-tender sirloin caps), and linguiça (garlic-and-pepper sausage). My friend waved a vendor over and promptly placed an order for queijo coalho, looking back at me with a toothy grin.

Queijo coalho em espetos, or cheese skewers, is a Brazilian beach staple. They’re made with light, squeaky cow’s-milk cheese, akin to the cheese curds I grew up with in the Midwest. The most commonly used cheese is coalho, made in the country's northeast. This particular vendor, however, used a version from Minas Gerais, a southeastern state that's home to some of Brazil's best coffee, cachaça, and, yes, cheese.

It’s the perfect cheese for grilling, with a mild, slightly acidic flavor and firm texture that holds its shape, so you can eat it right off the skewer.

A shrink-wrapped package of queijo coalho em espetos, Brazilian cheese skewers, on a table

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After five minutes over the flame, the cheese my friend ordered had turned a perfect golden brown on both sides, its surface slightly blistered from the heat. As he offered us our skewers, the vendor produced a small bag of toppings to choose from. A thin, pungently tangy white garlic sauce (molho de alho), drizzled from a squeeze bottle across the surface? Yes, please. A sprinkling of dried oregano? With pleasure.

I savored the garlicky, piping-hot brick of just-soft cheese between sips of a caipirinha, the perfect citrusy contrast to the greasy, fatty skewer. I felt like my third eye had been opened to the possibilities of beach snacks. Forget Chex Mix and cheesy popcorn—I’d be thinking about these skewers every beach day for the rest of my life.

As any good social media editor would, I snapped a photo and posted it on Instagram. The response was resounding: I want to go to there. So I pinged Daniel and Sasha in hopes of developing a recipe so we can all go to there whenever we please. Daniel, a capoeira master and general Brazil fanatic, was more than happy to oblige.

The resulting recipe is more of a technique than a recipe. It starts (and practically ends) with a shrink-wrapped package of queijo coalho skewers—an easy find at one of the numerous Brazilian groceries in Queens. Those elsewhere in the country can order the cheese online, where you may find it either precut and pre-skewered or in solid-block form.

Halloumi will also work in a pinch; when grilled, it takes on nearly the same texture as coalho. Just add garlic sauce and oregano, and you’re all set for a backyard barbecue or a trip to the beach.