The history of Brazilian churrasco barbeque begins in the 17th century in western Rio Grande (which then included parts of Argentina and Paraguay), where indigenous people─ particularly the Guarani Indians─were housed, cared for and converted. Although ultimately destroyed in 1768, in its heyday the community was a superb example of an ideal society, and had a profound influence on Brazil’s colonization. Its residents had tended herds of livestock, which began roaming free and growing in numbers after the community was raised to the ground. At the time, many saw little value in grazing sheep and cattle, preferring gold instead. And in the search for gold, explorers began heading south to Rio Grande from Laguna and São Paulo. These tropeiros (troops) would make brief encampments before moving on, but not before their enjoying their basic meal, which consisted of fresh meat roasted over hot stone coals on the ground and seasoned with a little ash.
Churrasco barbeque had become a common thread in the history of Rio Grande, and continued in that role during the third settlement cycle, called “the rancher age.” By now, huge ranches had sprung up, and the cowhands who worked on them had to travel vast distances to herd their cattle. During the weeks and months that they were out on the range, these Brazilian cowboys ate barbequed meat, which was nutritious and easy to make with all the meat at hand. It was at this point that churrasco took on the form we recognize today, with a fire pit surrounded by skewers of meat stuck in the ground.
The recipe couldn’t be simpler: take some salty meat which has a bit of fat – usually ribs – and slowly roast one side then the other. The barbeque was not unique to Rio Grande, it existed all over South America before the arrival of the Europeans.
Although, only in more recent times did the gaucho barbeques start incorporating other cuts, such as sirloin or flank steak. This change came about after a series of innovations introduced to churrasco in the 20th century, one of which came courtesy of Italian immigrants who had settled in the northern and mountainous regions of the state. For the Italians, barbeque was eaten only on a holiday: the choicest cuts were prepared the day before, marinating in wine and garlic sauce. This was the origin of today’s very popular rodízio or espeto corrido, as the gauchos call it (which simply means a continuous serving of different meats), accompanied by dishes that old-timer gaudérios might not have accepted, like chicken and pork.