Friday, May 25, 2012

Crispy Acarajé in Salvador Brazil

Salvador’s steep, sun-baked streets are lined with glorious Baroque churches and brightly painted 18th-century mansions. Music bursts from every other doorway, and in the coconut-palm-shaded squares, African Brazilians spin and swirl to the beats and claps of capoeira, a musical form of martial art. At street stands, women dressed in flowing white cook acarajé, a piquant patty.

Salvador feels like a rich slice of tropical Africa cut from a coconut coast and transposed to Brazil. It is a city of pearly beaches, lush tropical trees, and deep yellow light; of cobbled colonial streets lined with magnificent UNESCO heritage buildings, vibrant with rhythm and ritual. Pounding drum orchestras that parade at carnival troop through the narrow, Baroque-buildinglined streets of the old center once a week. Terreiros – sacred temple grounds devoted to African-Brazilian Yoruba deities – dot the city, from the fervid favelas (shanty towns) to the affluent apartment blocks on the caramel-colored cliffs above the aquamarine Atlantic.
Under the European slave trade, more Africans were transported to Salvador and its state, Bahia, than to any other location in the Americas. They were mainly from the Yoruba nation (now Nigeria and the Republic of Benin) and, against all the odds, they largely kept their homeland culture – and its cooking. Comida bahiana, the food of Bahia, is celebrated throughout Brazil today for its full flavors, spiciness, and sauces.
The most famous dish is acarajé, a spicy, stuffed falafel-like fritter that has been sacred for centuries.
West African Yoruba legend has it that the warrior goddess Iansã (also known as Oya) journeyed to find a potion that would enable her to spit fire; she is the goddess of lightning, winds, fire, and magic.
Historically, the Yoruba people remembered her story through a fire-eating ritual in which they swallowed flaming balls of cotton soaked in dendê palm oil, which were called àkàrà. Acarajé means “to eat àkàrà” in Yoruba, and the food – also covered in dendê oil – is still strongly associated with the ritual.
The best acarajé is prepared by baianas, local women dressed in ritual white robes who can be found all over the city, but in the greatest numbers in Rio Vermelho, a neighborhood of higgledy-piggledy streets near the ocean. The baianas carefully mash black-eyed beans and green onions, sprinkle the mix with salt and chili pepper, and deep-fry it in a pan of sizzling dendê palm oil. The resulting patty is split and stuffed with salad and vatapá, a chili-pepper-laden shrimp, ginger, and peanut sauce. Truly the food of the gods.

The main square in Pelourinho, the 16th-century heart of Salvador

Best Places to Eat Acarajé

Casa da Dinha
The legendary Dinha has been making glorious Bahian food for over 20 years from what was originally her home kitchen in the bohemian district of Rio Vermelho. Her simple restaurant seats around 50 people over two floors, and serves the acarajé for which she became famous. They’re rich and full of flavor, served with sumptuous vatapá and a host of other sauces (including caruru, made from okra and shrimp paste). The restaurant also offers a full menu of traditional Bahian dishes, a huge variety of delicious moquecas , and the best fruit juices in Salvador. Be sure to try Dinha’s suco de pitanga (cherry juice), whose tangy flavor perfectly complements acarajé.
Rua João Gomes 25, Largo de Santana, Salvador; open noon–4 PM & 6 PM–midnight Tue–Sat;

Also in Salvador
Visitors have to clamber up steep stairs from the cobbled street of Rua João de Deus to find the delightful airy dining room of Axego (+55 71 3242 7481; moderate) in the heart of the historical center, Pelourinho. The acarajé is possibly the best in any establishment in central Salvador, but the restaurant is equally famous for its huge moquecas – such as moqueca de peixe (Bahian fish and coconut stew) – which serve at least two people.
Acarajé on the Street
Baianas sell acarajé throughout the city of Salvador. The most reliable stands are on and around the wide plaza of the Terreiro de Jesus in the old center of Pelourinho (which has good crafts fairs on weekends, too), on the waterfront in Rio Vermelho, and around the Mercado Vermelho, the market in Largo da Mariquita in Rio Vermelho.
Also in Brazil
Chef Ana Luisa Trajano spent several years traveling throughout Brazil, from the backwaters of the Amazon to the hinterlands of the northeastern desert, collecting recipes from local people. When she returned to São Paulo, she opened Brasil A Gosto (www.; expensive), a cozy, bright restaurant on a quiet, leafy street in the upmarket neighborhood of Jardins. It serves gourmet versions of authentic, traditional Brazilian dishes, including excellent acarajé.
In Rio de Janeiro’s bohemian neighborhood of Santa Teresa, Bahian emigré Teresa Cristina Machado has been selling the city’s finest acarajé for so long that she’s become an institution. Try her perfect fritters at Nega Teresa (; inexpensive); visit early, before the crowds get huge.
What to Drink
You’ll need to wash down your spicy acarajé with plenty of liquid, and there’s no need for canned fizzy drinks in Salvador. The city has a wealth of tropical juices (sucos), most of which are completely unknown outside Brazil and are brought to Bahia from all over the country – from the temperate south to the rain forests of the Amazon. Choose any fresh juice – you won’t be disappointed. For something energy-inducing opt for purple açaí, which packs a powerful pick-up punch. For a healthy option buy a camu-camu – a 16-oz (half-liter) glass has almost a gram of vitamin C. For simple thirst-quenching, you can’t beat umbu, made from the milky pulp of a medicinal semidesert fruit. Caja, a small fruit that tastes like a mixture of mango and peach, grows in Bahia and contains an amazing number of nutrients, including iron.
A Day in Salvador
Salvador offers so much in a relatively small space – vibrant culture, fascinating history, and a string of lovely ocean and bay beaches.
MORNING : Begin a wander through Salvador history on the Terreiro de Jesus, a square in the heart of the old city surrounded by a cluster of the best Baroque buildings in Brazil. These include the Igreja e Convento do Sao Francisco, whose interior is covered in almost a ton of gold. Afterward pay a visit to MAfro, the African museum also on the square, then have lunch in Axego.
AFTERNOON : Wander downhill from Axego past the pastel-painted houses to Pelourinho for the best pictures of the colonial center. Visit the old African church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos at the foot of the main square, built by slaves in their precious free time during the late 18th century. Then take a taxi to the Mercado Modelo, a big open market crammed with souvenirs.
EVENING : Take a taxi along the beaches, stopping off at Barra for a juice and finishing in Rio Vermelho for acarajé and local nightlife.

A baiana de acarajé in traditional white clothing, with a necklace in the colors of her personal orixa (deity)
Getting to Salvador Brazil
Domestic and international airlines fly into Bahia’s Salvador airport; there are buses and taxis to the historic center.
Where to stay in Brazil
Albergue Hostel São Jorge (inexpensive) has backpacker bargain rooms in the heart of the historic center.
Pousada do Boqueirão (moderate) offers boutique comfort in a renovated colonial building with wonderful views over the Bay of All Saints.
Pestana Convento do Carmo (expensive) is Salvador’s grandest hotel, housed in a converted Baroque convent in the picturesque district of Pelourinho.

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