Salvador, Bahia: Dendê, Olodum e Orixás

Dendê, Olodum, Orixás: 3 words I think best describe Salvador da Bahia, characterized as the most African city in the Americas.

Dendê corresponds to the bright orange palm oil which is the base of Salvador’s staple food.  Palm oil is extracted from the pulp  of the fruit of the oil palm. 

 

 

Olodum refers to the Afro-Brazilian cultural group and way of life of many citizens, founded in 1979. Olodum highlights the African heritage and black pride through music, dance, theater as well as art. Olodum has also dedicated itself to cultural activism in the struggle against racial discrimination and socioeconomic inequality.

Olodum on a Friday night in the center of town

Finally, Orixás refers to the spirit or deity that reflects one of the manifestations of Olodumare (God). Not only is it practiced in Brazil, but lineages are still practiced in parts of Africa today.

One of the first things noticed when approaching a church called Bonfim were hundreds of colorful ribbons tied to the wrought-iron railings enclosing the structure, blowing in the wind. Senhor do Bonfim wrist ribbons, known as fitas, are an institution in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. Senhor do Bonfim means Our Lord of a Good End, which is one way that Bahianas refer to Jesus.The ribbons found on the streets of Salvador have “Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia” printed on them. Translated from Portuguese, the phrase roughly means In Remembrance of the Savior of Bahia or Souvenir from the God of Bahia.

While visiting similar chutes and walking the Praça (Plazas) of Salvador, Michael Jackson’s single “They Don’t Care About Us” came to my mind. The music incorporated the Olodum’s style of drumming and portrayed the reality of the people living in the slums of Rio but also Salvador.

With a strong sense of cultural identity of African, Native Brazilian and European influences, Bahia is a mystical land with a rich folk culture. People of African descent have contributed greatly and continue to contribute in the preservation of this cultural panorama. Capoeira, for example, is an Afro-Brazilian martial art practiced to music, a warrior’s dance; Candomblé, itself, is an animist religion with roots in West Africa. The Pelourinho or Pelô, is the heart of Salvador. It is a colonial city worth the visit with the largest collection of Baroque colonial architecture in Latin America making it a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city itself is located on the crests of the city’s many hills.

 

I felt a big different between Salvador and my experience in Rio de Janeiro. Though poverty was accentuated, there was a real sense of cultural identity among the people; but a gastronomic identity was equally extremely evident. Visiting the Mercado Modelo (Model Market) in the city center in Ciudade Baixa as well as the CEASA do Rio Vermelho on the western coast gave me an insight on the unique Bahian culture.

The Mercado Modelo was a former customs building and slave warehouse burned to the ground in 1984 and was then rebuilt in its original 19th-century style. It houses just about everything Bahia has to offer in terms of arts and crafts, souvenirs and food.

Some interesting things I encountered:

Aguardente de Caranguejo – Crab in a bottle of Aguardente. I don’t know if you could eat it, drink it or was just a souvenir? Probably drink…what a funny taste.

Manteiga de Garrafa; Butter-in-a-bottle or Manteiga da terra (“Butter of the land”) referring to a clarified butter product; typically northeastern. The best in the world, nothing like it and there isn’t a brand of butter that I can tell you. It remains artisanal.

Cachaça na bunda; literally “Cachaça in the Ass”. Nothing different from other ones; typically people go into the bars and ask for it with the latter saying. Interesting…

Finding typical Bahian dishes isn’t so much of a treasure hunt but there are many touristic traps and I wanted at least something where I could experience authentic food without being overpriced. One alternative to my quest was eating at Salvador’s Gastronomic university, SENAC, a Brazilian gastronomic university; the best actually, that has extended to all parts of Brazil; Sao Paulo included. Here, the educational centre allows adults to follow courses in cooking and serving while their practical experience is acquired in a restaurant which is daily open for lunch.

The restaurant sat next to Bahia’s gastronomic museum and the meal was served buffet style featuring many typically-African influenced Bahian dishes.

Vatapá – dish made from bread, shrimp, coconut milk, finely ground peanuts and palm oil mashed into a creamy paste. Commonly eaten with acarajé, Vatapá is often eaten with white rice in other regions. Alternatively, the shrimp can be replaced with ground tuna, chicken, or turkey, among other options.

Acarajé – dish made from peeled black-eyed peas formed into a ball and then deep-fried in dendê (palm oil) with shrimp.

Farofa –  toasted manioc flour mixture, either served alone, with garlic or dried shrimp or meat. Yum!  Here, Farofa Amarela “yellow manioc flour” due to the resulting color from mixing it with palm oil and dried shrimp

With dried meat, it is called Paçoca de carneseca; cooked with onions, meat and manioc flour.

Moqueca –  traditional Brazilian seafood stew. Brazilians have been making Moquecas for 300 years. It basically consists of fish, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, and additional ingredients. It is cooked slowly, with no water added. In addition to the basic ingredients, palm oil (dendê), coconut milk, shrimp, or crab are added in Bahia. The state of Espirito Santo also features Moqueca (called Moqueca Capixaba) however olive is used instead of palm oil; coconut milk is never used, urucum pigment is added, and it is always cooked in a traditional clay pan.

A couple of examples:

Moqueca de Lula – Moqueca of Calamari; similar to taste of Boullabaise.

Moqueca de Siri Catado – Moqueca of soft-shell crab. My all-time favorite.

Moqueca de Uvo – Moqueca of Egg. Very fluffy and light. Reminded me of a quiche.

Feijão – Beans, a Brazilian staple that appears on every restaurant table throughout Brazil.

Another kind of Feijão. Here, Feijão de leite – Pureed beans in coconut milk. Very sweet, almost tasted like red bean soup for those familiar with local Hong Kong desserts.

Here’s a picture of Feijoãda, ham hocks, pepperoni, pork ribs, bacon, onions and olive oil with beans and riceGiven the basic nature of its ingredients and wide availability, rice and bean dishes are a staple food. This was traditionally a slave dish; the better parts of the pork were served to the landlords of the plantation fields and the rest of the pig (belly, foot, ears, tail) were given to the slaves. However, now it has become one of the national dishes of Brazil.

Paio – Smoked sausage, looks dry but was succulent.

Efo – Sauteed Spinach which is creamy but was mixed with a stew rather than a cream

Quibebe – Winter squash/Butternut squash soup served with meat

Banana em Rodelas – Banana cooked in sugar, wine and cinnamon

Manjar de Coco – made of coconut milk, coconut slices. Reminded me of a flan, but lighter and Cocada com Mamão o e Coco – Mixture of Papaya jam with grated coconut – so delicious, never had it before. Like a thickened chutney, it was very sweet but went well with the subtle Manjar de Coco.

One of the nights I was in Brasil, I wanted something simple and grilled. Nothing much to ask. Luckily, food is cheap in sit-down restaurants so the idea of eating a baby chicken with side-dishes for 18 Reais (8 Euros) was hard to pass up.

The chicken (frango) was grilled, no seasoning needed with a crunchy skin and a moist flesh.

Side dishes:

Farofa

Feijão

Manioc fries

My Bahian gastronomic adventure did not conclude there. Bahia is along the Atlantic coast but the state of Salvador also holds Baía de Todos os Santos (“The Bay of All Saints”) which is comprised of 56 islands. You can easily take a Schooner (sailing vessel) to explore some of the islands and its beaches. The deal is good as it includes a lunch, some entertainment (Capoeira and live Samba band) as well as fruits and drinks onboard.

Ilha Dos Frades

Island/beach food is a cheap way to get yourself filled up during the day with many vendors roaming up and down beaches with different snacks to munch on. Food varies from the easily charcoal-cooked to food that is prepared that very morning. One thing I noticed despite the cheapness is that the food is always fresh.

Praia (beach) Stella Maris

Talking about freshness. I was lying on the beach when a vendor came up and offered oysters. I saw him earlier on the beach and decided to take a chance. Wow is all I can say, they were surprisingly sweet and I just added a splash of lime.

Salada de Siri – Soft-shell crab salad. That’s a whole lot of crab, but it’s a whole lot of good; mixed with onions, cilantro, lime juice, tomato but the freshness of the crab came right through.

The crab (Before)

The crab (After)

Cashew nuts: toasted, lightly salted or with spices. I recommend with spices.

Coxinha (“little thigh”), made from shredded chicken and Catupiry cheese. enclosed in wheat flour (manioc). It is shaped to roughly resemble a chicken drumstick, and sometimes a toothpick is inserted where the bone would be. Coxinhas were originally made with a chicken thigh, thus the origin of its traditional shape. The batter used to make the dough is often prepared with the broth of the chicken, enhancing the flavor of the dough. Crunchy on the outside, soft and buttery on the inside.

Catupiry cheese is a soft, mild-tasting cheese that can be spread over toast and crackers or used in cooking.

Queijo coalho (“coalho cheese”) is a firm but very lightweight cheese.

It is salty and when bitten into has a ‘squeaky’ texture, compared to its crunchy exterior. Vendors brown rectangular slabs of it on sticks in hand-held charcoal ovens, often with a sprinkling of oregano and garlic-flavored sauce. It is eaten off a stick, much like a kebab. Many people also eat it with molasses.


Crunchy, just enough spice and light for the beach

Escondidinho de Carne; It reminded me of a shepherd’s pile with mash potatoes on the top, minced meat and pork is hidden underneath. A bit heavy for a beach day, as I felt I would sink at the bottom of the bay but a delicious Bahian dish.

                       

                           

I felt as if it was a while since I last had proper ice-cream. In Pelurinho, A Cubana, is a traditional bar selling natural ice-creams. For 2 scoops, it’s 3.50 Reais (around 1 Euro). The choices are diverse and exotic.

Choices of the evening: Menina Bonita (Cashew with condensed milk) and Açaí berry as well as Caja (small elliptical fruit resembling a mango) – and a first for me and Creme com Passas (Cream with raisins). Good way to cool down from the sun, and not extra sweet either.

Before ending, you can’t talk about Brazilian gastronomy without making at least one reference about its coffee. I’ve been living in Paris for about a year or so now and despite Parisians loving their noisette or cafe au lait at all times of the day, I have to be honest, the coffee always leaves me disappointed. I don’t know why, but I always assumed that French coffee was good until I tried Brazilian coffee. I know, i know, you enter stores like Starbucks and other artisanal coffee shops in any city and they boast about their daily brew of either coffee from Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Brazil but I am never convinced.

But, in Bahia, I’m speechless. The coffee here is good and that’s probably just an under-statement. It doesn’t even look like coffee in the first; rather a very dark English breakfast tea. Personally, I like to add milk and sugar to my coffee since I could never fathom drinking it black, but here I am in the streets of Salvador, drinking my coffee black. Yes, all black. It’s sweet, it’s savory, it’s just delicious. The stereotypical coffee smell is not even there, it smells sugary. To Brazilians, this is probably seen as a crazy argument from a ‘gringo’ but I’m telling you, it is fantastic. So fantastic, I bought vacuum packed coffee powder; not your run-in-the-mill nespresso that you mix with water, but coffee that you place in a filter and pass water through it, the traditional way. 

Best coffee in the world:

As I end this blogpost on Salvador, Bahia, I am left amazed with the diversity of Brazil. One minute you’re in Rio, among buildings lying on the beach, a metropolitan city that is all about business; the next you’ve found yourself in Salvador, Bahia, a historical root in Brazil with so much more culture, tradition and historical remnants of Africa and the slave trade. Everything started here: this is the first state the Portuguese discovered, Salvador is the first port the slaves were shipped to.  The city has not developed as fast, it remains highly colonial, and so has the food with Feijoada, Moqueca, Acarajé, Vatapá. It’s almost untouched by globalization; it boasts artisanal flare and they are proud of it, even marching on the streets demanding the preservation of the city. This is the cradle of Afro-Brazilian culture; This is Bahia. 

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