Salvador, the culinary portal to Africa
The cuisine of Salvador in north-eastern Brazil combines colonial history with a vibrant culture
When one thinks about Brazil, the first images that come to mind are Christ the Redeemer, the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, and the clubs of Santa Teresa and Lapa. It is no mere coincidence that all these sights belong to just one city, Rio de Janeiro.
For most tourists to this part of the world, it is this city that defines Brazil. No one place, however, can solely represent the giant that is Brazil. The country, which covers 47% of the land mass in South America, is the fifth largest in the world, both geographically and population-wise. And this was the reason I chose to travel all the way to Salvador, the capital of the north-eastern state of Bahia.
It is believed that almost 80% of Soteropolitanos (the residents of Salvador) have some African ancestry, making this the largest city with an African-origin population outside the continent. Much of this can be traced to transatlantic slave trade between the Portuguese colonies in Africa and Brazil in the 16th century. Naturally, this has led to a curious amalgam of identities and cultural practices and cuisines. For example, a sizeable part of Salvador’s population practises Candomblé, an amalgam of the Christian and pan-African religions.
It wasn’t long before I started noticing the African influence everywhere in Salvador, especially in the food. From the chillies to the shrimp and the oil, everything has its roots in Africa.
My culinary journey started with a simple street food dish, the acarajé, which I first tried at a small restaurant in Rio Vermelho, a hip coastal suburb of Salvador. At first bite, I understood why the dish is so popular. Comprising a fried ball of mashed black-eyed peas stuffed with vatapá (a paste of coconut milk, peanuts and shrimps), a mixed salad of onions, bell peppers and tomatoes and a topping of dried shrimp, this dish is an essential Bahian experience. The first acarajé were believed to have been brought by the slaves from West Africa, and another version of it, akara, is a popular snack in Nigeria. In Salvador, it is mostly sold in street-side stalls by Afro-Brasilian women dressed in traditional bright skirts; the dish is also offered to the spirits during Candomblé rituals.
Acarajé was just the beginning. Right across the apartment where I lived in Salvador was Restaurante Seara, a humble restaurant serving superlative food. Thursdays especially were something to look forward to, for that’s when they served up a traditional Bahian buffet. Most of the dishes were cooked in dendê oil (a thick reddish-orange palm oil), with generous bits of the fiery local Malagueta pepper. Among the staples on the menu was vatapa (also used in acarajé), another Afro-Brazilian amalgam for which the ingredients were originally imported from Africa. Then there is the Angolan-origin caruru, a gumbo-style preparation of okra, shrimp, cashew nuts and palm oil.
A Bahian breakfast staple that I tried was the cuscuz, which draws a lot of inspiration from Morocco and other parts of North Africa. This steamed and mildly flavoured cornmeal cake is served simply with clarified butter, local cheese, or a meaty broth. In the southern state of Sao Paulo, the cuscuz is combined with different vegetables and eggs.
My moment of culinary epiphany came about 10km from Salvador, on the island of Itaparica, where African and Brazilian influences merged perfectly in a delicious seafood stew, the moqueca. Originating from the African word mu’keka, which roughly translates to “fish chowder" or “fish stew", it features all the stars of the Bahian kitchen—dendê oil, coconut milk, malagueta chilli, along with prawns, fish, bell peppers, onions and tomatoes. The stew is prepared and served in a traditional clay casserole along with steamed white rice and farofa (roasted cassava flour).
Food alone is a reason to look beyond Rio.