Cultural Stew in the Pelourinho

The next part of my trip fulfilled a longheld ambition to visit Bahia and its capital Salvador which has the reputation of being the party capital of Brazil. In late February it hosts the biggest carnival on the planet with over four million people partying for a whole week along a 25km carnival route. It makes me tired just thinking about it!

The history of Bahia is essentially the history of Brazil as Salvador was the first city to be founded by the Portuguese in 1549.

Pelourinho is the oldest quarter of Salvador so it can be argued that the culture of the nation (food, folk music, Capoiera  martial arts, the Candomble religion, carnival etc) originally spread from this small baroque quarter. Little has changed here since the city was founded and it still retains its old cobbled streets, colonial buildings and stunning churches.

It’s also one of the more dangerous parts of the city (Salvador in general is very poor) but if you stick to the busier streets you should be fine. It can seem like everyone is on the hustle so you need to keep your wits about you.

Bahian cuisine is a rich mix of cultures as you’d imagine. The Portuguese habit of stewing lots of things together is applied to local and African ingredients. Manioc (aka cassava) was the staple crop of the Indians and replaced yam in the diets of the slaves. It usually finds its way into most meals at least once, most likely as a flour to mix with the sauce, pureed or fried as chips.

The frying medium of choice is Aziete de Dende, or palm oil, brought from West Africa during colonial times. This is such an important local ingredient that this part of the coastline is known as the Costa do Dende. It can be quite heavy, depending on how much is used, and the taste can take some getting used to.

Seafood is the thing, especially shrimp. Typical dishes are seafood stews like Moqueca  (made with coconut milk, tomatoes, coriander, palm oil, shrimp or crab and a multitude of other variable ingredients),  Ensopado  (very similar but using olive oil ), Bobo (with dende but thickened with manioc puree). It’s hard to tell distinguish between them sometimes as they look very similar but the flavours are subtly different.

Abara is made from mashed black-eyed or cheaper brown beans, which are formed into a dough along with grated onion, dried shrimp, salt and palm oil, and steamed in banana leaves. The same mix is used to make Acaraje,  where balls of the dough are deep fried in palm oil. Today the same food is still called Akara in southern Nigeria and both Acaraje and Abara are used in Candomble rituals.

Another side dish featuring with most meals is Vatapa, a paste of bread, crushed peanuts, shrimp, coconut milk and palm oil.

Mama Bahia (Intermediate C/D), Rua das Portas do Carmo 21, Open Mon-Sun 11am-12pm.

My first taste of Bahian food at this randomly chosen restaurant was disappointing but I didn’t know whether it was due to the unfamiliar ingredients or the cooking. I had the Couvert Baiano, or Bahian Appetiser, which included small Acarajes (B-), Abares (C), Vatapa (C) and Camarao (prawns fried in dende, a salty C). Everything was saturated in dende, the taste of which was overbearing. I did have had less oily Vatapa a few times after this and enjoyed it much more, so I think it was the chef and not me. If you like to choose your restaurants more carefully, I’d say this is a place to avoid.

My food experience on the second night was much better however. I had the good fortune to make two local acquaintances, Jorginha and Natalia, who I met through CouchSurfing, a website for linking up travellers with friendly locals who are willing to host them. Salvador has a very active group with over two thousand members and Jorginha is a local ambassador for the site. I found her by typing in the key words ‘English teacher’ (our common profession) and ‘food’! She was an absolute diamond and I wouldn’t have had half the experience I did without her. Thanks Jorgia! x

Ponte Vidal (Intermediate A), Rua Laranjeiras 23

On my suggestion, we went to Bradt guide-recommended place which was supposed to be great for local food but seemed very quiet for some reason. My new friends suggested I try Escondidinho (literally meaning ‘hidden little one’); a large earthenware pot containing chunks of Carne Seca (dried beef) covered with a puree of manioc, kind of like cottage pie. It was served here with side dishes of manioc chips, salad, chilli salsa, black-eyed beans and  a bowl of manioc flour for sprinkling on everything. It was fantastic (A), and I just couldn’t stop eating it.

In the Pelourinho, Tuesday is called Terca de Bencao or ‘Blessed Tuesday’  (due to a special Mass) and is one of the best nights to go out. So, after our meal the three of us went to check out a live Salsa band playing in one of the many squares. The audience was as much fun to watch as the band with everyone line dancing together at first, then breaking off into pairs for wild close dancing as things got going.

After this we went to a crowded bar that was playing live salsa but stood outside due to the heat and crowds. The narrow streets were so packed it reminded me of Notting Hill carnival on Saturday night, except this was a Tuesday! A pickpocket nearly had my notebook away here, thinking it was a wad of notes but I had my cash in an inaccessible pocket.

We also saw some live Batucada on the street, with the drummers tossing their instruments in the air between beats, an amazing spectacle of sight and sound.

Hotel Casa do Amarelindo (Advanced A-), Rua das Portas do Carmo 6, Tel. (71) 3266 8550

I treated myself to this top notch hotel for a couple of nights to make use of their services (baggage storage, tourist help in English, BBC on the telly and a small pool and gym) and would totally recommend it for a short (pricey) stay. It’s owned by a friendly French couple who have a great eye for detail. The bathrooms and beds are luxurious and there are wooden carvings of carnival costumes everywhere.

The food is pretty good, especially the breakfast which is excellent  (fresh fruit, yogurt, perfectly scrambled egg, ham, cheese, rolls, coffee, juices). This is also where my addiction to passion fruit Caipirinhas began, the first of many! You get great views over the bay from the bar terrace on the top floor, and the sunsets are just stunning.

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