Brazil Travel
» Brazil Homepage
» Bahia


Advertising by Google

The culinary of Bahia, Brazil

By Ericivaldo Veiga, doctor of Social Sciences from the Catholic University of São Paulo.
This article was published originally by the Ministry of Foreigner Relations of Brazil. As such, the information is for public release, but many documents published by the Ministry don't reach the public. It is being published here as a means to spread information about Bahia and Brazil.

Read also:
Bahia travel information
Brazilian Cuisine

bahia cooking
Bahia cooking

In this article, whose title is so rich in cooking metaphors such as flavor, essence and secret, I intend to provide a socio-anthropological account of the cuisine of Bahia including, as well, conditioning aspects such as tourism, which have led to what we dare calling the new cuisine of Bahia. And just between us, all very secretly!

Guided by the different forms of essence and secret, we will unveil some aspects of the cuisine of Bahia. But if it is a secret, how can we get to know it? By asking "What is so special about Bahia women?" and "Have you ever been to Bahia?" songwriter Dorival Caymmi revealed some secrets of Bahia that had been kept under lock and key: our women's clothing, our churches, and even a "recipe-samba" that teaches us how to make a good vatapá (Afro-Brazilian dish of shrimp, fish or chicken with a flour base, seasoned with coconut milk and African palm oil):


If you want vatapá – ô
Try to make it like so:
First add the corn meal,
Then the African palm oil,
Look for a black woman from
Bahia – ô
That can - stir
That can - stir
That can - stir
Add cashew nuts
A little bit more
Red pepper
A little bit more
Add peanuts, shrimp and grate
the coconut
Then mix it all together
Finally, season it with salt,
ginger and onions, Yayá!

The city of Salvador was founded to meet the expanding needs of the Portuguese mercantile system and to serve as the capital of Brazil for over two centuries. The city became the most important trading post in the colony. Single-culture agriculture, especially with sugarcane in the Brazilian Northeast or mineral extraction, formed significant cycles in the exploitation of the resources of the lands that had been discovered.
This type of appropriation was based on slave labor brought by the thousands from several African regions. There was a time when the city's black population was larger than that of white people formed by the economic elites, the clergy, administrators and poor white people.
Although trading activities with Portugal were centered in Salvador and the Recôncavo(vast and fertile coastal region of the state of Bahia), the colonialist venture also penetrated the hot and humid regions of the south as well as the vast region known as the Hinterland, which is characterized by the presence of caatingas (regions characterized by thorny, stunted vegetation), meadows, mountains, and valleys.


With a heterogeneous geographic and cultural development, the hinterland is less populated and still stigmatized by constant droughts. The anthropologist and essay writer Antônio Risério, who is also an observer of contemporary life in Salvador, believes that the transfer of the colonial capital to Rio de Janeiro, which was motivated by political and economic factors, led the city to isolation and to the development of an ethnically diversified population, as well as a culture with a specific historical configuration:
"For well over one hundred years, Bahia will plunge into a period of relative isolation and solitude, before its peripheral inclusion in the northeastern expansion of Brazilian capitalism. And the psychosocial tissue of a new culture, which was organically born of the experiences of the Portuguese people, of the Bantu people, and of the Yoruba people – the latter sold, in their majority, by the kings of Dahomey - developed exactly from the ripening of these more than one hundred years of isolation, of nearly terrifying self-absorption. What we today call the "culture of Bahia" is, therefore, a cultural complex that can be historically dated. A complex that is the full configuration of a process that has unfolded since the 19th century."

It is no longer a secret the fact that the cuisine of Bahia is diversified and that researchers complain about the prevailing interest for the cuisine of the capital and the Recôncavo, which is predominantly marked by dishes of African origin or dishes containing palm oil.
During the 20th Cultural Meeting of Laranjeiras, held in the state of Sergipe, in the mid-1990s, the Bahia-born folklore researcher Hildegardes Vianna, in her "Breve Notícia da Alimentação na Bahia" complains about the lack of research "on the State's hinterland and southern cuisine". She tries to fill in the gap by presenting a short list of seafood dishes found in the cuisine of the southern region of Bahia bathed by the Atlantic Ocean: crab and fish dishes, and westwards, in the border with the State of Minas Gerais, meat and seafood dishes from the East Coast.
The typical cuisine of the hinterland of Bahia, in turn, is presented by Vianna as being sober and a reflex of the poverty environment. In the basin of the São Francisco river, the daily cuisine is marked by the presence of manioc root flour and goat meat, fresh beans and manioc mush, in which the flour is scalded in milk, meat or fish broth.

The engineer and professor at the Engineering School of the Federal University of Bahia, Guilherme Radel has recently written the recipe book entitled "A Cozinha sertaneja da Bahia".
The book reveals secrets of the hinterland cuisine and shows its evolution. In the introduction, Radel's hinterland cuisine is refined both in the technique and in the ingredients, although they can all be found in the region. The author helps to reveal the secret of the new flavors and confirms the lack of dissemination of other Bahia dishes as well as the dictatorship of the palm oil.
According to the author "The hinterland cuisine spreads throughout Bahia and its presence is weaker exactly where the presence of the Afro- Bahia and Indigenous cuisines is stronger: in Salvador, in the Recôncavo, and on the shore. In the interior of Bahia, people eat basically the dishes that are typical of hinterland cookery: beans; different types of sun-dried meat dishes; sautéed, stewed, and roasted goat, lamb and pork; meninico (stew made of mutton giblets); goat or mutton haggis; pork giblets; sautéed and stewed chicken; milk mush; mush made of corn meal; pumpkin purée; cassava; pumpkin; maxixe (a type of gherkin); fresh beans cooked in butter; goldenfried manioc meal; and a dish made of goat and golden-fried manioc meal.
Such is the structure of hinterland cookery, which is undoubtedly the main contribution to the cuisine of Bahia.

However, this very important aspect is not fairly disseminated, thereby allowing the Afro-Bahia cuisine to make up the so-called cuisine of Bahia, as if the African people had been the only ones to contribute to its development.
In the set of recipes recorded by the author there are 362 different dishes made of goat, lamb, pork, beef, poultry, eggs, fish, and game. The secrets of religion are one of the elements responsible for the frequent use of the muchcriticized palm oil in hinterland cookery. The religious syncretism of African origin extends, so to speak, to hinterland cookery during the Passion Week. Radel records 14 dishes containing palm oil in hinterland cookery, which are included in the category of food for occasions of "fasting and rules".


The fixation of researchers with the Bahia cuisine of African origin might be explained by historical reasons. Something similar occurs with the candomblé (religion of African origin brought to Brazil by African slaves) brought to Bahia by the Yoruba people to the detriment of the candomblé of Bantu origin, among other groups of African matrices. Particularly in Bahia, where the presence of certain African groups could not be matched by any other Brazilian region, cookery has been strongly influenced by this interaction process that made up the Brazilian society.
The strong presence, especially of spices such as the palm oil, has contributed to the development of the cooking system of the Bahia cuisine. In his text entitled "Dietas Africanas", the anthropologist Vivaldo da Costa Lima expressed the methodological lines to understand the Afro-Bahia cuisine, which has been mistakenly disseminated as a homogeneous cooking system. According to Costa Lima, the cuisine of Bahia is "The cuisine of a whole geographic sub-region of Bahia known as "Recôncavo".
The cuisine that developed in the region – the Bahia cuisine – is also popularly known as oil food, in an allusion to the palm oil, which is extracted from the pulp of the fruit of the Elaesis Guineensis palm tree.

Different types of pepper are "another constant ingredient in Bahia cookery", especially the Capsicum pepper, of the solanaceous family. In his book entitled "A Bahia do Século XVIII", Luís dos Santos Vilhena, a Greek professor who lived in Bahia late in the 18th century, offers us a menu of African dishes sold in the streets of Salvador which, in Vilhena's view as a foreigner are "despicable and insignificant":
"It is impossible not to notice eight, ten, and even more black men and women coming out of the wealthier houses in this city, where major negotiations and deals are made, to sell in the streets the most insignificant and despicable things, such as different sorts of delicacies like calf's foot, carurus (dish made with okra, fish, shrimp, chicken, peanuts, cashew nuts, and seasoned with oil and peppers), vatapás, mingaus (porridge), pamonha (cake made of green corn, cinnamon, etc., rolled and cooked in cornhusks), canjica, i.e., corn mush, acaçá (corn meal and rice flour mush), acarajé (dish made with beans, seasoned with salt and onion, fried in palm oil, and served with pepper sauce, dried shrimp, vatapá, tomatoes, and green pepper), ubobó (dish made from beans, bananas, manioc, and seasoned with palm oil), coconut rice, coconut beans, angu (mush made of corn meal), and the most shocking thing: dirty water mixed with honey and other ingredients known as aloá, which black people drink as lemonade."

The menu presented by Vilhena reveals trends of a hybrid – although already Brazilian – Bahia cuisine. These trends will be expressed mainly among folklore researchers of regional-oriented mind and sociologists.
In "Arte Culinária na Bahia" (Culinary Arts in Bahia) published late in the 1920s, Manoel Querino expresses interest in the "customs and habits of each region"; he introduces Bahia cookery as a hybrid cuisine in "the ethnical development of Brazil". In the end of the 1930s, Sodré Vianna retired to a voodoo center to copy 50 recipes of Bahia cookery, which he later on published in his Xangô Journal. The same author, in the text entitled "Sauces of Bahia", published in the Anthology of Food in Brazil and organized by Luís da Câmara Cascudo, emphasizes the preference of the people of Bahia for sauces especially prepared with red pepper. In the same anthology, writer J. M. Cardoso de Oliveira describes a dinner served in Bahia in 1889.


A history of passion filled with moquecas (broiled fish), efó (vegetable paste with dried shrimp, palm oil, red pepper and other spices), acarajé, abará (dish made with beans, pepper and palm oil, and rolled in banana leaves), acaçá (corn meal and rice four mush)… Food is as much an element of the house as its windows and residents. As Cardoso de Oliveira wrote in his aforementioned book: "On the window sills there was a line of bowls of sweets. On the table, bowls of beaten eggs and dough, and nutmeg and sugar clove packets lined up. In the corner, Inacinha, although nauseated, prepared the sponge cake, the coconut pudding, the manuês (variety of corn cake made with honey); in the kitchen the girls prepared the caruru made of okra and leaves, sifted the flour for the vatapá, cleaned the shrimps for the efó. In the grocery stores on the same street, African women would provide the abará, the acarajés and the aberéns (baked cakes made of corn, sugar and water, and rolled in banana leaves). D. Eugênia was in charge of making the cassava cupcakes, the small milk acaçás, and her two specialties: coconut and cheese cupcakes and smoked bacon. But she interfered everywhere, tasting something here, adding butter there".

It is in the book entitled "História da Alimentação no Brasil" (History of Food in Brazil) that Câmara Cascudo gives us one of the most complete descriptions of Brazilian cookery. He describes in detail the menu of cooking techniques and the sociological aspects of the Brazilian cuisine. Although he ate vatapá and caruru in Salvador, at some of his colleagues' from the medicine course, in 1918, he restricts these dishes, in sociological terms, to the popular scope. Sociologist Gilberto Freyre visited Bahia in the 1930s and was impressed with the politeness and the cuisine of the people of Bahia, as he wrote in the foreword of his "Casa Grande e Senzala". Freyre, who was Franz Boas' student at Columbia University, praised the sweets and cakes prepared in the Brazilian northeast, as recorded in the book entitled "Açúcar". It is a sociology of sweets, whose first edition dates back to 1939. The books by folklore writers Hildegardes Vianna and Darwin Brandão, which have the same name - "A cozinha baiana" – describe the Afro-Bahia cuisine of Salvador and the Recôncavo.

Roger Bastide, a French sociologist, was particularly interested in palm oil dishes within the context of the candomblé.
Costa Lima describes this cuisine in its religious context and in the observation of its dynamics in the secular context, as seen in the text entitled "Etnocenologia – e etnoculinária – do acarajé". The author of this article studied the Bahia cuisine of African origin through a methodological approach that adopts the perspective of the Training Restaurant of Bahia cookery of the National Service of Commercial Apprenticeship (SENAC).
The institution developed a six-month cooking course on Bahia dishes aimed at the hotel-tourism market. The course reflects the vicissitudes of its organization and of the professional market in times of globalization.

The dissemination of popular culture, particularly of the Bahia cuisine of African origin, which has been transformed into icons through delicacies such as the acarajé, the abará, the vatapá, the caruru and the shrimp bobó has contributed to the development of important supramaterial conditions in the rationalization of tourism: an image that defines Bahia as a special and unique place for its cuisine and the happiness of its people reinforce these conditions. Writers and artists from Bahia are the most important disseminators of this image that was built in the historical and cultural process of the daily lives of the people of Bahia.

bobo de camarao
Bobó de Camarão

The mid-19th century is the time limit when the image of Bahia as the land that nourishes traditions was established. Salvador, the state capital, is still proud of its status as the "queen of the Atlantic", which has been consolidated by its commercial position in relation to the Southern Atlantic Ocean: "Europe, France and Bahia" is an expression of the Brazilian folklore, which was probably coined in the 19th century and reveals the status of Bahia. An analogy translated as something like Paris in relation to Europe, and Bahia (Salvador or the city of Bahia) in relation to the New World (America).

The secrets of the flavors of Bahia also imply observing the movement of tradition and modernity. As a result, we witness the emergence of new cooks and the gastronomic and occupational reinvention of the cuisine of Bahia. Many cooks like D. Flor, a character in Jorge Amado's novel "D. Flor e seus dois maridos" (D. Flor and her two husbands), a book in which palm oil dishes color the pages of the book golden yellow. Cooks like Dadá, Alaíde, Dinha and Cira – all of whom are heirs of the guardians of the practical know-how of the cuisine of Bahia, old cooks of centuries-old families or of the candomblé centers of Bahia. But they also preserve tradition by including the new and welcoming reinvention.
On the other hand, the Bahia cuisine of African origin is being used by NGOs and community institutions such as African groups during carnival as a pedagogic element to bring education, selfesteem, and citizenship especially to youths of African origin; black organizations with strong mobilization power set up cooking festivals to entertain and preserve the memory and identity of the cuisine of Bahia.
The African cuisine of Bahia therefore fulfills its political role and wants more than just reproducing the biological existence of its fans. The food, although aimed at consumption, preserves and renews the memory kept in taste, in the sound of boiling palm oil, in the piquancy of the red pepper, in the crispness of the acarajé. These secrets and flavors are revealed to help strengthen and renew humanity.

Back to Top