Cookery and history Deconstruction of Bahia’s cuisine

Fast food from Bahia: Aracaja is available on every street corner and on the beaches of Salvador. The fried bean mash is fried in palm oil and filled with crabs and salad.
Fast food from Bahia: Street kitchen on Salvador's beach | Photo (detail): RiKa © picture alliance

Experts consider it a myth that the cuisine of Bahia incorporates African traits distinct from those of other Brazilian or “Black Diaspora” cities.

By Christiane Sampaio

“The image components of the ‘Bahia’ brand (including its cuisine) are derived largely from symbolic, static and everyday activities that are invoked for tourism and instrumentalised, and whose most important resource is emphasising cultural heritage,” states Joachim Michael Krones in his article Turismo e Baianidade: a construção da marca ‚Bahia‛ (Tourism and ‘Bahianity’: the construction of the ‘Bahia’ brand). “The cultural forms characterised as ‘Afro’ define the day-to-day life of the city of Salvador and give it an especially attractive, marketable and exportable profile,” says the researcher.

From a nutritional point of view, this cultural construction also contributes to an invisiblisation of the significant indigenous influence on the cuisine of Bahia. “Cassava flour was the queen of the table in every regional dish in Bahia; meat was the king,” explains Jeferson Bacelar, researcher at the Centre of Afro-Oriental Studies CEAO and postgraduate lecturer in anthropology, ethnology and African studies at Bahia State University in his article A comida dos baianos no sabor amargo de Vilhena (The food of the Bahians with the bitter taste of Vilhena).

In his article, Bacelar outlines the cuisine of Bahia, with reference to a literary work about Bahia commonly known as Cartas de Vilhena dating from the end of the 18th century. “The hierarchy of the different types of cassava flour is reflected on the city’s tables: fine flour called copioba for the well-to-do; the yellow, coarse, musty-smelling variety for the blacks and poor people. The other main food of the citizens of Salvador was meat. (...) Livestock farming became established relatively early as one of the most important factors for settlement on the sertão plains. Its spread to inland Brazil began via Bahia,” writes the researcher.


Religiousness and resistance

For Bacelar it’s religious cuisine in which the power and tradition of the presence of African traits have been preserved. “The Candomblé places of worship have developed their own sacrificial offerings, which are the result of religious interaction between Brazil and Africa,” he says, and emphasises that there are no ‘authentic’ or ‘original’ dishes even in the food at the temples. Everything is imbued with a variety of cultural references.

  • Every year in February, followers* of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé cult carry flower baskets onto a boat during the ritual ceremony in honor of the sea goddess Yemanj in Amoreiras, Bahia. Besides flowers, perfume and food are also typical offerings. Jan Sochor © picture alliance
    Every year in February, followers* of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé cult carry flower baskets onto a boat during the ritual ceremony in honor of the sea goddess Yemanj in Amoreiras, Bahia. Besides flowers, perfume and food are also typical offerings.
  • Outdoor restaurants in Porto Seguro, Bahia Yadid Levy © picture alliance/robertharding
    Outdoor restaurants in Porto Seguro, Bahia
  • The cuisine of Bahia: multicultural diversity. Typical Bahia dishes on the stove of a restaurant kitchen in Itacare. Photo (detail): Photononstop © picture alliance / Guy Bouchet
    The cuisine of Bahia: multicultural diversity. Typical Bahia dishes on the stove of a restaurant kitchen in Itacare.
  • Manioc flour, Ver o Peso market of Belem, Brazil Olivier Goujon © picture alliance/robertharding
    Manioc flour, Ver o Peso market of Belem, Brazil
  • Wood plough and team of oxen: 2015 in the Afro-Brazilian settlement of Quilombo Monjolo, Sao Lourenco do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul Florian Kopp © picture alliance / imageBROKER
    Wood plough and team of oxen: 2015 in the Afro-Brazilian settlement of Quilombo Monjolo, Sao Lourenco do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul


Bacelar likes to quote one of Bahia’s most important nutritional anthropologists: “Vivaldo da Costa Lima had a critical perspective on the reinvention of the tradition of what they used to have in Africa, and with regard to the way this reconstruction presents itself in Brazil. He would never have viewed things inflexibly, and was of the opinion that everything undergoes constant change.” Vivaldo da Costa Lima (1925–2010) was ‘Obá’ of the Afro-Brazilian deity Xangô on ‘terreiro’ Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá, professor emeritus of Bahia State University (UFBA) and one of the pioneers of the Centre of Afro-Oriental Studies CEAO. Just before his death he collaborated with the then priestess on ‘terreiro’ Alaqueto, D. Olga Francisca Régis, to write some final notes for an analysis of sacrificial offerings carried out in 1965, which was published in 2011 by Corrupio.

Food and power

Bacelar believes that more funding should be invested in researching the traditional cuisine of Bahia. “We don’t know much about its history,” he says. “In the colony there was a hierarchical framework of positions in which elements such as clothing and food defined the social standing of each individual. (...) When we come to look at Bahia’s food culture, we can identify an absolute invisiblisation of the white woman, the mistress of the house. It’s overlooked that food also reflects power relationships, and for that reason the idea that black female cooks dominated the kitchen and asserted their preferred flavours – simply through their presence in the domains occupied by white people – is an illusion. They introduced a few elements, added a few ingredients, but always under the supervision and at the behest of the white mistress. After all the table was one of the most important areas dominated by white women in colonial and imperial Brazil,” writes the researcher.

New interpretation of today’s cuisine

“The ethnic food sold on the streets of Bahia uses some elements of sacrificial offerings, but is never a dish dedicated to a specific orixá. There’s a universal gastronomy invasion, and here in Bahia, being especially religious, we maintain cultural elements of typically African cuisine that have been saved over time. It’s the battle to strengthen black identity,” believes chef Angélica Moura, who founded the restaurant Ajeum da Diáspora: cozinha da resistência (food of the diaspora: resistance cuisine) nearly four years ago.

Angélica Moura, Chef of the restaurant Ajeum da Diáspora: cozinha da resistência (food of the diaspora: resistance cuisine) Angélica Moura, Chef of the restaurant Ajeum da Diáspora: cozinha da resistência (food of the diaspora: resistance cuisine) | Photo: Safira Moreira​​ Ajeum is a Yoruba wort for food in the sense of enjoying flavours, aromas and spices. “It’s like a gastronomic journey,” explains Moura. In search of autonomy and survival, she created a restaurant for which she opens up her own home from time to time, each time offering a unique menu, the result of an intuitive research project in an attempt to initiate dialogue with the African diaspora. “I wanted to offer something special, because in Salvador you know where to get good feijoada, rabada, mocotó or sarapatel. I didn’t want to sing from the same hymn sheet. So I began to research the food from some of the African countries, because you can get the ingredients for those in Salvador. So I began to make, create and copy. I look at lots of dishes from Cuba, New Orleans, Nigeria, Angola and Benin, and fine-tune them. I adopt a very creative approach when it comes to the aesthetic design of my dishes, because they need to look beautiful,” reveals the chef, who’s from the district of Tororó in Salvador.

This article first published on www.goethe.de/Brasilien.