Brazil’s idyllic beaches, including the country’s most popular destination, Rio de Janeiro, are known for their lively street food vendors selling ice cream, coconut water, sandwiches, the iconic snack biscoito globo (a puffed snack made from manioc flour), and increasingly, queijo coalho, a local treasure hailing from the Northeast. Coalho vendors parade down the white sandy beaches with rustic portable tin fire pits, ready to start grilling the cheese, which has been prepared on individual wooden skewers. Similar to the Greek halloumi in texture, structure, and saltiness, when grilled, coalho holds heat from the charcoal so well that it develops a nutty, smoky crust on the outside. As they walk the beach, vendors leave a trail of aromatic cloudy plumes smelling like the almost-burnt scraps of cheese found on the bottom of an iron pan — they serve the skewers with a dusting of oregano on the outside, and the result is comfort food heaven, even better when washed down with a cold beer. The coalho skewer is so intertwined with Brazilian barbecue culture — also famous for its meaty cuts like picanha (rump cap), alcatra (top sirloin), fraldinha (flank steak), and coraçãozinho (chicken hearts) — that you can find it preportioned on skewers in delis, groceries, and supermarkets.
Grilled cheese, often speared on skewers, is a street food quick fix in many cultures, with different cuisines bringing their own spices into marinades. For a vegetarian barbecue, grilling cheese can really be a game changer. Even in the proudly meaty grilling cultures of South America, it’s an essential part of the feast. Here’s how to do it:
Go hard on the cheese
When it comes to grilling cheese, thickness, hardness, and melting point are all important factors. The ideal cheese has a high melting point, to help hold its form and to create the ideal texture: crisp or crunchy at the exterior, then slightly runny or creamy inside.
For barbecues, the popular Greek semihard halloumi should be your first choice. It’s a brine-preserved cheese made from sheep’s and goat’s milk that can be used in place of meat. It’ll work well as a burger or in a sandwich, as the protein in a colorful plate of grilled vegetables, or skewered as an appetizer. After grilling, lightly rub it with or dip it in truffle honey, or, if your budget won’t go that far, use some regular honey instead for an impressive salty-sweet contrast.
Brazil’s local coalho releases a nutty flavor when grilled. It’s usually treated like a steak on a barbecue; skewered and grilled; or heated in a griddle pan or a nonstick grill pan and garnished with dried herbs or dried oregano and served with clarified butter on the side. This isn’t the cheese for you if you’re looking for a bite that ends with a long, gooey string: Texturally, grilling coalho turns the cheese from spongy to slightly melted on the inside.
In Argentina and Uruguay, provoleta, an elastic and smoky bubbling cheese with a beautiful golden-brownish crust, is a common part of the asado meat feast (it’s also served as an appetizer). Provoletas are sold in large cylindrical pieces to be cut in thinner circles — not too thin, though — and often come to the table fully melted in a charming medium-sized cast iron. Taste-wise, provoleta is very similar to Italian provolone; because it’s often difficult to find South American provoleta Stateside, the Italian version will do if thickly cut. (A too-thin piece is far more likely to burn). A homemade chimichurri will add spice and flavor to the dish.
Paneer, a traditional Indian cheese usually made from cow’s or buffalo milk, is also a grilling option. It has a well-balanced salinity — not too much, not too little — and is very soft but consistent, making it ideal for grilling. It goes well with a chutney accompaniment.
There is a whole universe of cheese to discover when it comes to grilling, such as the Mexican queso panela or the Greek kefalotyri. It’s really a matter of your preference and what happens to be available when you want to fire up the grill.
Some tricks to get it right
If you choose paneer, place it onto a skewer in the same manner you would for queijo coalho (which often comes that way) for a little charm and to guide individual portions.
Brush halloumi, paneer, and coalho with olive oil, let it sit for a few minutes, then place over a medium- to high-heat grill. Sear one side until brown. Brown the other side by flipping it over. Make sure the cheese is cooked on the inside by flipping it a few more times. Keep an eye out for burning as softer cheese will cook faster.
A more difficult cheese is provolone: Throwing provoleta on a grill and scooping it in such a way that it retains a circular shape takes special skill; believe me, I’m Brazilian and I’ve tried many times. If possible, use an iron skillet that’s the same size as your slice (it will double as your serving dish), drizzle the skillet with olive oil, and place on the grill; put the cheese in it once it’s heated. A slice between about a half-inch in height and 4 to 6 inches in diameter is ideal. When it starts to melt, carefully flip it over to avoid overcooking. Allow the cheese to brown on the exterior, flipping it if possible, before moving it to the center of the table for some bread-dipping or a fork scoop.