You don't need books to learn about the history and culture of Bahia, a shockingly beautiful northeastern Brazil. Just bring a healthy appetite, because the food here is intrinsically linked to the identity of this coastal region.
Almost 4 million slaves were brought from Africa into Salvador, Bahia’s captial, before being sent to the sugar plantations, gold mines and coffee plantations throughout Brazil. As a result, modern Bahia is the heart of Brazil's African heritage, and the magic of its food lies in its combination of indigenous and African ingredients, along with a dizzying blend of spices and herbs from the Portuguese colonies of India and Southeast Asia.
"Food is a language to communicate with the gods," Tereza Paim said as she served a plate of moquecac; a flavor-packed fish stew and Bahia's signature dish. Tereza is the owner of Casa de Tereza, recognized as one of Salvador’s finest traditional Bahian restaurants. Having been inspired by her grandmother's cooking, she learned her culinary skills in the restaurants of Europe, before returning and setting up her own business. Now, she owns one of the hippest (and most soulful) restaurants in the city’s Rio Vermelho district. It’s easy to see why—the stew has a broth most would kill for.
Moqueca is a dish that perfectly embodies the cosmopolitan nature of Bahia. The main ingredient is saltwater fish, typically caught in the waters of the bay, which is then mixed with rich coconut milk and dense palm oil—all ingredients brought to the area from Africans. The liquid is flavored with lime, paprika, garlic and chilies, many of which have their roots in Africa and Asia. The mixture is slowly cooked in a terracotta dish, and served with rice and manioc flour—a mainstay indigenous ingredient.
Manioc (cassava) is a mainstay of Brazilian cuisine, and you’ll be hard pressed to enjoy a meal that doesn’t feature it in one of its many guises. At the entrance to Salvador's Feira do Sao Joaquim market, you can meet a man who sells nothing but manioc flour from a modest stall which has been a family business for several generations. Behind him are at least 50 large sacks squeezed into a tiny space. As if to confirm the close ties between Bahian food and religion, among the neighboring stalls there's one selling Candomble paraphernalia, including ready-made spells, with names such as “Leave Me” and “Bring Me Customers.”
While moqueca is the most typical Bahian dish on offer in restaurants, the undisputed king of Bahian street food is acaraje. Made from a paste of mashed black-eyed peas, the mixture is deep-fried in dende oil and served with a dried shrimp mixture, a hot chili sauce, or a nutty paste. This humble dish is most visibly served from street carts by ladies in traditional white dresses who ply their trade in the Pelourinho, the tourist-friendly Old Town district of Salvador. Pick one up and you’ll certainly appreciate the crispy fried exteriror and the spicy, pillowy and flavorful inside.
Cuisine’s Connection to Bahian Traditions
While the signature dishes of Bahia celebrate its multicultural roots, it would be wrong to suggest that all Bahian cuisine is tied to this heritage. At Fazenda Santa Cruz, a hilltop farm overlooking the colonial town of Cachoeira and the tobacco plantations of the Rio Paraguacu valley, the owners have set up a rustic restaurant. Succulent steak from the farm's own cattle is paired with homegrown vegetables and served with fried manioc flour and huge portions of pumpkins. It's simple home-cooked food, served in a farmer's garden with a fabulous view of the valley; a far cry from the bustle of Salvador on the other side of the bay, yet every bit as authentic a taste of Bahia as the region's more celebrated dishes.