A beach picnic of acarajé in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)
As Luis and I walked along the white sand beach of Salvador de Bahia, the center of African culture situated on the northeastern coast of Brazil, looking for a good spot to put down our pareos, my stomach started to grumble. Although, there were several beach side restaurants with formal menus, I wanted something more casual and less expensive, that we could eat as a picnic lunch while soaking up the sun and watching the crashing waves. Luis spotted a kiosk with a large umbrella near the road and went to investigate while I unpacked our things from the beach bag and staked out our territory on the sand. He returned with two plates filled with what looked like an extremely large hushpuppy topped with unpeeled, un-decapitated and still-tailed shrimp, next to a scoop of thick orange paste and a few spoonfuls of a viscous, brown, lumpy glue-like substance. Yum.
"What the hell is that?" I asked, with my usual level of subtlety and discretion. "Acarajé" he replied, as if the only reason that I couldn't identify it was that the sun was in my eyes. "Which is?" Luis looked at me as if I had just beamed down to the planet this morning. It was one of the many instances that our South American/North American cultural differences become glaringly apparent. It was the equivalent of Luis asking what a hot pastrami sandwich and cream soda were, had we been lunching at the Carnegie Deli in New York City.
Acarajé beach kiosk (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Turns out that acarajé (pronounced ah-car-a zjay, accent on the zjay), which is actually quite delicious and addictive, is the ubiquitous street food of Brazil, but is especially prevalent in Bahia due to the African roots of the dish. The hush puppy-like fritter is actually made from peeled and mashed black-eyed peas, deep fried, then served either alongside its accompaniments or split and filled with them. The fillings usually include different pastes made from shrimp or cashews, a fresh tomato salsa, strongly flavored sauteed whole shrimp (most often dried, but occasionally fresh) and vegetables such as green tomatoes, peppers and onions. The side dishes include vatapá, a paste made from bread, shrimp, coconut milk, peanuts and dendê oil (a type of palm oil that gives Bahian food its distinctive taste and orange color, similar to the effects of adding annato or saffron) and caruru, a condiment made from okra, onion, shrimp, dendê oil and peanuts or cashews. The food is often served by women known as "Baianas", who dress in traditional voluminous, lace-trimmed white dresses, strings of beads and turbans or headscarves.
A Salvadoran Baiana far from home in Petropolis, a hill town near Rio de Janeiro (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The name "acarajé" is actually a mistake. The original African name of the food was acará, which is the name still used in Nigeria today. When the women who sell the street food called out to potential customers, they would shout "I have acará" in their native language, which is "acarajé", so everyone just assumed that the food they were selling was called "acarajé". Most of the Baianas today are related to female freed slaves, who, although they had obtained their liberty, were not permitted to work or own property such as a shop or restaurant. They were also denied education which would have allowed them to develop marketable skills, so consequently they turned to what they knew best: cooking their native African dishes. Since they had no property rights, they cooked and sold their specialities from portable carts, which could be moved easily if they were being harassed by white citizens or local authorities. The practice of cooking and selling food at these carts became a tradition and the methods and ingredients that these women employed years ago continue to influence the food of Brazil today.
Luis with two Baianas in the historical district of Salvador de Bahia (photo by Simone Cannon)