Think of Brazil and what comes to mind: Magnificent coastal landscapes, picturesque colonial towns and idyllic, palm-fringed beaches. With a diet revolving primarily around arroz (rice) and feijao (black beans), Brazilian cuisine rarely makes the list of top travel attractions. However, consider a trip to Bahia, a state in northeast Brazil that blends African and Brazilian food traditions, and where a dive into the regional offerings reveals an array of world-class epicurean adventures worth your gastronomic while.
The African roots of Brazilian foods
The state of Bahia, located on Brazil's northeast coast, is the African-Brazilian epicenter of the country. Here, samba rhythms with hypnotic African beats fill the streets and locals still practice candomblé, a religion derived from beliefs brought over from Africa.
Origins of Bahian food
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Afro-Brazilian culture is found in Bahia's sizzling cuisine, a treat for those seeking culinary adventures. In the kitchens once dotting the sugar plantations of the Brazilian coastline, African slaves relied heavily on the traditions of their homeland. They introduced a great variety of ingredients and techniques from African cuisine, while assimilating the tastes of their Portuguese slave masters. It was here Bahian food was born.
Ingredients of African-Brazilian cuisine
After more than 300 years you can still taste the distinct African flavor in Bahian cuisine. Dishes are based on several key ingredients: coconut cream, ginger, coriander, shrimp and spicy malagueta peppers. Dende oil, however, takes center stage in Bahian kitchens as the foundation of many regional dishes. The thick, potent oil comes from the pulp of a fruit on a palm tree grown both in Africa and Brazil, and its distinct reddish-orange color is as fiery as its taste.
Bahian food specialties
No trip to Bahia is complete without sampling the moqueca. This Brazilian regional specialty is made with fish (most often shrimp), onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, coconut cream, malagueta peppers and dende oil. It's cooked slowly over a low-burning stove, with no water added. The result is a creamy, spicy seafood stew served over rice.
Bahian moquecas are almost always served with a side of farofa. Farofa, once a staple of Indian and African slaves, comes from a hard root called manioc that grows all over Brazil. The consistency of the mixture ranges from large grains like couscous down to a table-salt-like powder. In Bahia, typical recipes call for raw manioc to be toasted with butter, salt and bacon. It's then served with the main course and can either be sprinkled on individual dishes to taste or as an accompaniment in its own right.
Brazilian street eats
For the most authentic Bahian culinary adventures, look no further than the food stalls lining every street. Here, you'll find Bahian women rolling out their entire kitchens to serve up superbly fresh eats.
Pull up a stool and order up the spicy acarajé. Another African food tradition -- it's also found on the streets of Nigeria and Ghana -- this street-food staple consists of mashed black-eyed peas deep-fried in dende oil. Split open when cooked, the oily, softball-size fritter is then topped with camarão (small, sundried shrimp), pimenta (hot pepper sauce), vatapá (a paste made from sundried shrimp, peanuts, cashews, coconut milk and dende), caruru (a kind of okra stew) and diced tomatoes.
Bahian Food is a tasty reason to visit Brazil
Entrenched in the culinary heritage of Africa and Brazil, prepared with passion and oozing with flavor, Bahian cuisine personifies this vibrant culture. Sampling the food is more than a meal. The fiery flavors and variety of offerings are a testament to Bahia's history and people. One taste of a moqueca or acarajé and any food lover will concur: Bahian cuisine is indeed a star attraction of Brazil.
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