Kiini
Ibura
Salaam

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Vol. 22, In Brazil: Bahian Food

Posted on 15 March 2002


Salvador, Bahia
Brazil

When I returned from Lençois, my sneakers were so dirty, I decided to just leave them in the plastic bag I transported them in. On a rainy morning, a few weeks after my return, I decided to wear my sneakers instead of the customary flip-flops. I pulled my sneakers out of the plastic bag only to discover little patches of white mold had grown over them. When I showed my host, he shook his head sadly. His eyes were saying, “You should have known better.” And I should have. During my first trip to Brazil I left a beaded bracelet underneath a shelf. The humidity combined with the darkness below the shelf made the perfect breeding ground for mold. My Caribbean friend told me to just clean it, but the mold was growing on the leather lining of the bracelet, the part that would touch my skin. I was itching just contemplating putting that bracelet back on, so I gave it away. Weeks later, my sandals molded. Sandals, being a more expensive and practical item than a bracelet, are not something to mindlessly throw out. I grabbed a wet paper towel, wiped them down, and kept wearing them for the duration of the trip.

A few weeks into my current Brazil stay, I went to the AeroClube with my hosts. It’s a huge mall, most of it outdoor, obviously styled after American consumption. There’s a plethora of fast food restaurants, clothing stores, a concert hall, a movie theater, and a few jewelry and import stores. We were browsing the fast food places, looking for somewhere to eat, when we saw a Bahiana sitting behind her table with an array of acaraje, abara and toppings. My hosts were surprised to find acaraje at the mall. They said, years ago, acaraje was rejected as candomble food. The establishment didn’t accept it. Now, that acaraje has proven itself, both in a culinary and an economic fashion, it is being co-opted by folks who wouldn’t be caught dead eating or selling it in the past.

Acaraje and abara are quick, cheap, portable foods sold all over Salvador mostly by black women in full Bahiana dress. Some women do it to complete tasks they are given in their religious development on the candomble path. Some women do it to earn a living. I’m not certain exactly what goes into the acaraje/abara mix, I was told it had to do with black eye peas. But they mix up batch with a large wooden spoon in a metal bowl. The acaraje is fashioned into tiny little football shaped patties and deep fried. The abara is made with the same mix, but it’s wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. To serve, both of them are cut open and filled with a salad (made of cilantro, onions, and green tomatoes), piron (piron is a thick puree that can be made of anything: cassava, fish stew, etc. I think the base is farina. The piron that goes on acaraje/abara is made with shrimp, caruru (I’m not certain about the spelling, I’m doing this from memory. Caruru is a thick okra dish) and pepper sauce if you want it.

I think the acaraje is fried in dende oil. Dende is HUGE in Bahia. It seems like they cook everything in it. The dende is a type of palm oil and it lends a yellowish hue to the food. The most popular dende dish is moqueca. Moqueca can be made with seafood or shrimp, but it’s traditionally made with fish. The stew is also made with tomatoes and onions and other wholesome elements. A big element of Salvador cuisine is the accoutrements. There is often a tray offered with pepper, a green-tomato onion salad, and farina. Farina is a ground grain that people in Salvador sprinkle on their food, specifically on saucy food. I’ve seen it sprinkled on beans and rice, spaghetti, moqueca. People seem to enjoy the taste, but it seems to me, it’s a filler, it adds more bulk to the meal, helps you fill up faster.

Brazil is a big meat country. Another big Salvador dish is feijoada. It is a beans dish with a plethora of pork and beef cooked in. One day when I was sitting in the kitchen I watched my host throw five types of meat into her beans—beef, pork, fatty bacon, sausage, and something else. “Are you making feijoada?” I asked. “No,” she said, “these are regular beans.” Of course they cook the beans with meat, but I’ve never seen anyone go to that extreme. Brazil is famous worldwide for their churrasco—meat grilled on huge skewers. You can buy a cheap plate of churrasco and you’ll get three types of meat—beef, pork, and chicken—with rice, salad, and farina to accompany it. There’s also a popular appetizer called arrumadinha, which is cut up beef, sauteed and mixed with farina and some other things. But because Salvador is coastal, non-meat eaters don’t have to fear —seafood plays a big part in the cuisine. I’m basically a fish-eating vegetarian, but I won’t die if I have to eat chicken. As many times as I’ve found myself on flights unable to eat, you would think I would make it a practice to call ahead and order a vegetarian meal, but I always forget and I’m sometimes scared of other people’s interpretation of vegetarian food. So I often go on a flight banking on that chicken option. Not on a Brazilian airline. Meat pizza, meat omelettes and meat fritattas. Would you like beef or pasta with pork? Is that a choice? It was a hungry flight.

But once you get to Brazil there is a stunning array of fresh fruit and cheap food. Brazil has all the tropical fruits I became familiar with in the Caribbean—jackfruit, soursop, pineapple, mangoes, coconut, sugar apples, star fruit— as well as a number of fruit I had never heard of—acerola, umbu, caja, mangaba, siriguela. In Salvador I saw my first cashew fruit. I have since irritated all my friends by explaining to them exactly what a cashew fruit looks like, and how a cashew grows. The fruit is an orangey color, it almost looks like a small bell pepper, it hangs from the tree with ONE cashew nut crowning it. Each fruit has one nut. How crazy is that?

Fresh fruit juice is one of the pleasures of Salvador. All over the city are shops where they will juice any fruit they have in stock for you. They also make banana shakes, and fruit mixes that sometimes include beets. In Salvador, they also make a wide variety of sweets with fruit: cocadas—a grated coconut sweet; fudge from peanuts, milk, or coconut; guava sweets; caju sweets. On the huge ferry boat to Ilha Itaparica in the morning, vendors circulate selling corn or tapioca pudding—a hot breakfast meal; beiju—ground tapioca heated into a crepe-like shape and thinness, rolled with plantain or coconut inside; and coixinhas—tear shaped patties with meat or chicken inside. I guess it’s sort of like sitting on the train in NYC and people come through selling candy, toys, and batteries. But in Bahia, these vendors are selling home-cooked food.

On the beach in Barra, the selection is even more dizzying. You can buy pastels—patties with meat inside; banana real—a long flat pasty with plantain in it; roasted cheese—vendors walk around with tiny tins full of live coals and a tupperware container of cheese blocks on a stick, they roast them when you order; shrimp on a stick; fruit salad; sandwiches; beer; soft drinks; peanuts; and popsicles. On the edges of the beach are women selling acaraje, coconut vendors, and fried fish vendors. In addition to food items, the beach vendors also circulate selling bandanas, portable mini-radios, beach wraps, dresses, and tanning lotion.

There are always opportunities to buy juices, sodas, and sweets. On our way to the market one day, we stopped at a man’s little streetside sweet stand. We bought coconuts, a doughnut (called heaven) with homemade jelly inside, and a banana real. As we hung out talking, the man asked us if we were Americans or Americanized Brazilians. We said we were American. “All four of you?” he asked. We were four African Americans. He said we spoke well, but there was something different about our Portuguese. There is an interesting phenomenon of black people all over the world thinking that they are the only black people in the world. It seems easy to accept white people as foreigners, but somehow it’s difficult to integrate the idea of black people living somewhere speaking another language, living a completely different life. It may be a commentary on diasporan black people’s universal sense of isolation. I remember during my first trip out of the country, I stared and stared at the black people I saw speaking Spanish in the Dominican Republic. It was like my mind couldn’t register the reality. “What are these black people doing speaking Spanish?” I asked myself. And certainly, the whole time I was there, they had difficulty identifying me as American. If I was speaking English with my friends, they accused us of putting on airs and acting American. I would say, but I am American and they wouldn’t believe me. A few times, they would even turn to a white person (if I happened to be with one) and say, “Really, where is she from?” Similarly, when I arrived to Brazil, my friend and I would speak English in front of Brazilians, and one black man in particular sat there astounded. “You speak it so fast,” he said amazed. “Well, of course,” I said, “it’s my language.” But the amazement is reflexive. Just as Brazilians are amazed to see us speaking English, black Americans are amazed to see Brazilians speaking Portuguese. “I never seen so many black people speaking another language,” said a Black American on his first visit to Brazil.

After assuring the man we were American, I added, “I hope no Brazilian would be as clueless as we are.” He said “No, there are some Brazilians who go to the States and lose their culture. Some want to mimic the U.S. thinking it’s better, but I think everyone has to be themselves. Everyone has something to bring to the table.” As we chatted on, I crunched on my banana real and ran into the same problem I always run into. The banana real is a flat rectangular pastry. With the plantain, it’s the perfect blend of crunchy and soft, a wonderful marriage of flavors. Without the plantain, it’s just some dried-up bread. Since this vendor was so friendly I decided to take up my issue with him. Why, I asked him, is the banana real so wide, but there is only one strip of plantain in it, so that one side is tasty and the other side is dry? “Economy,” he said, “trying to save money, but I don’t think that’s right. I’m going to talk to the woman who makes them.” “Oh, no,” I said, worried that I had gotten the woman in trouble, “She isn’t the only one. Every single banana real I’ve had has been like this.” “I don’t care,” the man said, “it isn’t right. The plantain is supposed to be from one tip to the other. This is my barraca and I have to sell quality here. I’m going to talk to her firmly about changing that.” He was smiling, using comic hand gestures. “But not in anger or anything,” I said. “Oh, no,” he said, “but very firmly, come back Monday, you’ll see, it’ll be a better banana real.” It was a hilarious exchange. He was a funny man, extremely personable and he obviously cared about his business. He promised me I had done nothing wrong. He said, “How many people do you think come to my barraca and they think like you, but they just never say anything. They just never come back because my banana reals are dry. It’s not every day that four Americans come to my barraca, you know. And if you’re not satisfied, I’ll never have the pleasure of your company again.” He really made our trip to the market fun.

The market itself was a special treat. The entrance to the market looked like a grubby little side street. There were fruit vendors set up on either side selling bananas, watermelons, sugar apples, yellow melons, siriguela, umbu, and more. There was a crab vendor sprawled out, leaning back on his baskets, holding out one crab. As he drank, he periodically poured alcohol onto the poor thing, as if its captivity wasn’t enough suffering. It waved its muddy legs helplessly while we wondered if a crab could get drunk.

Then we came upon the meat section. Meat vendors had cow legs hanging on hooks. The liver and other internal organs sat in neat stacks on the counter, the meat was stowed away somewhere. For people who are accustomed to seeing their meat cut, trimmed, shrink-wrapped, and tagged, it’s a pretty shocking sight. The inside of the market was made up of about four narrow walkways, each one full of vendors. Walking by, we saw a plethora of vegetable, herb, and nut vendors. Huge stacks of dried cashews and mounds of dried shrimp rested in large flat baskets. Braided, coiled tobacco was displayed in huge rounds. Upon first glance it looked like some animal’s dried intestines. There were religious shops mixed in with the food vendors, these shops were laden with ceremonial swords and crowns, statues, religious herbs and jewelry and other specialty items needed for candomble worship. Everywhere we looked we saw bunches of random leaves—herbs with medicinal properties that you needed to know how to identify to buy. We bought lettuce, greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green onions, and vegetables. We were forever coming upon items we couldn’t identify. There was one vegetable that was a small, pale green sperm-shaped item, except the head was huge and the tail was tiny. The body of it was covered in spikes. When we asked the vendor what it was, we didn’t recognize the name. He explained how to prepare it and cut one open for us. I was surprised to find it full of seeds and when we smelled it, it smelled like a cucumber! The market day was a special day. A venture not into public Bahia, but into the most regular of daily rituals that was filled with enough newness and fresh visual stimulation to provide us with a feast for the eyes and the nose.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :

Acceptances:
Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Rejections:
Publications: 5
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==

No acceptances or rejections this week.