A History of Salvador's Dishes
The pastel-hued, vibrant architecture of Salvador is worthy of a painter’s palette, and once that painter put down the brush for the day, there’s no doubt he would indulge in the gastronomic wonders of Salvador, satisfying a very different palate.
This striking city, separated into upper and lower areas by the Lacerda Elevator, nestles beautifully into the Bay of All Saints, where local fishermen line the coast and stock the markets, ensuring that both Salvador’s residents and visitors can enjoy fresh seafood whenever they please.
History whinnies and quivers through Salvador’s cobbled streets – it is a city with complex origins, and its food is no different. Many of the dishes that perfume the city’s largos (squares) made their debut in the Brazilian colonial period, being brought to the north-eastern region of Brazil by the enslaved people from Western Africa.
It’s no surprise then that many of Salvador’s dishes today embody a bold fusion of Portuguese, African and, in some cases, indigenous flavours and cooking techniques. The history of a dish, like the fine wine that can accompany it, can bring out flavours you never knew were there.
So here we go, the origins and history of some of Salvador’s most famous foods.
A staple in Salvador is Acaraje, a mixture of cowpeas and chopped onions shaped into a ball
,deep fried in dende oil, then halved and stuffed with a spicy paste made from shrimp, ground cashew nuts, palm oil, and coconut milk.
This punchy snack is typically sold as a street food by women from Bahia, known as Baianas, who are recognisable by their white cotton-dresses and headscarves. The recipe was brought to Brazil by slaves from West African countries and sold by the ancestors of the white-dressed women in Salvador in the 19th century.
The money generated from the sale of acaraje was often used to buy the freedom of family members, and after that, it became a source of family income. The snack is still found in various forms in western Africa, in countries like Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, and Sierra Leone. Akara, as it is known in Southwest and Southeast Nigeria, plays a significant role in Yoruba culture, typically being prepared en masse when an elderly person dies. It was also prepared in large quantities as a sign of victory, when warriors came back from war.
Another flagship dish of Salvador is Moqueca. This recipe combines sliced fish, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, coriander, chives, palm oil, coconut milk, salt and pepper. This dish is triune in origin, a result of three prominent cultural influences: Portuguese, African and Indigenous.
In the native Tupi language, “moquem” was a wooden grill, which was traditionally used to smoke meat or fish wrapped in leaves and seasoned with herbs, pepper, and embers. From Africa, the addition of coconut milk and palm oil made their way into the recipe, and it became moqueca, which comes from the term mu’keka in the Kimbundu language of Angola. After these welcome extras to the recipe, the dish started to be served in clay pots, and is today usually served in a terracotta cassole.
And now one for all you sweet-toothed foodies out there: Tapioca.
Tapioca, or Beiju as it is known in Salvador, is another common street food. This snack, which comes from manioc root, is much like a crepe in the sense that it is filled with either a savoury or sweet filling, folded in half and eaten by hand.
Generally speaking, savoury filling combinations include: Mozzarella, tomato, oregano, and basil; shrimp, mozzarella, and pumpkin; tuna, mozzarella, olives, capers, and carne do sol; salty cheese and plantains. Sweet fillings include Nutella and banana; coconut, condensed milk, and dried plums; mozzarella, banana, cinnamon and sugar; and a Brazilian classic, Romeo and Juliet, made with guava jelly and Minas cheese (semi-soft cheese).
Tapioca comes from the word tipi’oka, its original name in the Tupi language spoken by indigenous people when the Portuguese colonists first arrived in Northeast Brazil. Tipi’oka means ‘sediment’ or ‘coagulant,’ which likely refers to the starchy sediment produced by the extraction process. The Tupi were one of Brazil’s largest native peoples, and their agricultural expertise meant they were able to grow cassava (manioc), sweet potatoes, beans, peanuts, squash, cotton, and many other useful crops.
This next concoction, though used as an ingredient for filling acaraje, is also a dish in its own right.
The curry-like vatapa, though similar to moqueca in its makeup, is spicier and has a creamier texture. First, shrimp, bread and coconut milk are mixed together, then peppers, ginger, ground cashews (or peanuts), and dende oil are added, and all of these ingredients are then mashed into a paste.
When served as the filling for acaraje, vatapa can be made slightly thicker. Vatapa is another dish with strong African influences – in fact, it arrived in the North-eastern region of Brazil through the Yoruba people, an ethnic group that populates Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and parts of Ghana. The dish, when first introduced to Brazil, was called ehba-tapa.
Last but not least, Brazil’s national dish, the feijoada.
Feijoada’s defining ingredient is the black bean, which gives it its name (‘feijao’ means beans in Portuguese). Along with black beans, all sorts of other ingredients are added depending on who is cooking it, but these can include dried beef, sausage and various parts of the pig, including the ears, snout, feet, and sometimes even the tail.
Usually most of the meat is recognisable, so there’s no need to worry about that! The story goes that feijoada originated from some innovative enslaved cooks during the colonial years, who were sometimes given the leftover, ‘inedible’ parts of meat that their masters would not eat. These resourceful cooks threw the ears, snouts and tails into a cooking pot full of black beans and worked with whatever flavour they could conjure up in the stew. The result was a dish that is now celebrated by almost every cook in Brazil.
There you have it, five soulful dishes you can enjoy in Salvador de Bahia, accompanied by a pinch of history and a dash of culture.