The cooking of Bahia is a unique Afro-Brazilian cuisine that is delicious and satisfying. Some dishes can be very peppery or rather heavy, so it is worth experimenting.
Though it contains contributions from the Portuguese colonists and the native Amerindians, by far the most important influence on Bahian cuisine came from the enslaved Africans, who not only brought their own style of cooking with them, but also modified Portuguese dishes with African herbs and spices.
Bahian cuisine is characterized by the generous use of malagueta chili peppers and dendê oil extracted from an African palm that grows well in the northeastern climate. Several Bahian dishes also contain seafood (usually shrimp), coconut milk, banana, and okra (ladies’ fingers).
Moqueca is one of the region’s most popular dishes. It is a mixture of shrimp – perhaps with other seafood as well – coconut, garlic, onion, parsley, pepper, tomato paste, and the ubiquitous dendê oil. These ingredients are all sautéed over a low flame and served with rice cooked in coconut milk – a creamy, delicious dish.
Other traditional dishes are vatapá – a spicy shrimp purée made with palm oil and nuts – and carurú de camarão, which contains both fresh and dried shrimp, as well as sliced okra.
In the better Bahian restaurants, these dishes are served with a hot malagueta sauce. Sometimes this is added directly to the dish in the kitchens, and the cook may ask you if you like your food quente (spicy hot). Until you get used to the strong flavors of the dendê and malagueta, it is best to say no. If the sauce is placed in a bowl on the table, as it often is, you can try a little at a time. Bahian hotels are a good place to kick off your culinary adventure, since they tend to go a little easier on the malagueta.
The women of Bahia are among the world’s great confectioners. They concoct sweets from coconut, eggs, ginger, milk, cinnamon, and lemon. Cocada, a sugared coconut sweet flavored with ginger or lemon, is a favorite. Ambrosia, made with egg yolks and vanilla, and quindim (glistening little yellow desserts made from egg yolks, sugar, and ground coconut) are sweet delights. You can buy cocada from baianas throughout Salvador.
Baianas, usually dressed in white, set up shop daily in special shelters or at improvised tables where they sell cocada, abará, and acarajé, a traditional street food. You really should try this typical food, but do so at a place that has been recommended to you, or where you see plenty of local people eating, to be sure you are getting a fresh and well-prepared product.
Acarajé is made from shelled fradinho beans (similar to black-eyed peas), which are mashed together with ground shrimp and other ingredients and formed into a ball, then deep-fried in dendê oil. It is served split in half and then stuffed with vatapá or caruru, shrimps, and salad, and hot chili pepper if you wish. Abará is made from the same ingredients, but is not deep-fried. Acarajé is a wonderful treat to have between meals, especially if you have it with a beer at one of the beach-front bars.
For a Bahian culinary and cultural experience, you can’t do better than go to one of the restaurants of Salvador, many of which offer local cuisine, together with a folklore show.
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