The Westside neighborhood of Palms is where LA’s original Brazilian community settled back in the 1990s and 2000s, near the location of the old Cafe Brasil, and centered around a couple of markets specializing in Brazilian products. The Supermercado Brazil is where every Brazilian expat goes to pick up manioc flour, päo de queijo mix, Talento chocolate eggs before Easter Sunday, catupiry (cheese spread), nostalgic Brazilian snacks like Vale Douros cassava flour crackers, and cases of Guaraná, the most popular Brazilian soda pop.
Reni Silva and Ilma Wright shop regularly at Supermercado and El Camaguey Market to gather ingredients for Sabor da Bahia, a catering and event-based business offering the regional foods of Salvador da Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian culture.
Brazil’s rich music, food, and dance traditions are rooted in West Africa, and nowhere is this truer than in the city of Salvador da Bahia in the northeast. West African religions formed Candomblé in the fields, where enslaved Africans resisted Portuguese institutions and faith. This created internationally known afro-Brazilian traditions from capoeira martial arts, axé music (a genre from Salvador fusing Brazilian and afro-Caribbean styles), and also a fascinating cuisine based on cassava, a woody shrub, and the strong-scented dendê, or palm oil.
Akara (bola de fogo, or ball of fire) is a West African black-eyed pea fritter fried in dendê oil of the Yorùbá that morphed into a street food called acarajé. (pronounced ah-car-rah-jay) The sacred dish is favored by the warrior deity orixa Iansā (also written as orisha), the goddess of winds, lightening, violent storms, death and rebirth. “In Candomblé, selling acarajé on the street and wearing traditional clothes is one way to please Iansā,” says Sabor da Bahia’s Reni Flores, a singer and cook from Salvador da Bahia.
Acarajé dough is prepared in a method similar to nixtamal (corn cooked in an alkaline solution) for tortillas. The acarajé dough requires black-eyed peas to be soaked overnight, peeled, chipped, then ground wet into a smooth, white dough. “I never planned to make acarajé, but I signed up to be a part of the Brazil Day LA festival to sell pastel da feira (pastries) and they said they already had a pastel vendor,” said Reni. “I told Ilma [Wright],” Reni’s partner in Sabor da Bahia, “I’m going to make acarajé. It took some practice but it’s in my blood.”
Reni met Ilma Wright in Salvador da Bahia 12 years ago when Reni was singing at the Bahian carnaval bloco Ilé Aiyê, the original black sound of the Brazilian festival, Carnaval, celebrated in the Bahian capital. Since then, the two have become regular caterers at Brazilian events in San Francisco, San Diego, and here in LA such as Fiesta La Ballona in Culver City.
In Pelourinho, the historic colonial center of Salvador da Bahia, baianas de acarajé are resplendent Afro-Brazilian women adorned in immaculate white dresses and head wraps festooned with the colors of their deity. They reign over tabuleiros (stands) as benevolent snack queens, breaking into timely smiles and nodding when you decide to place an order, and bringing good fortune to the goddess of wind, lightening, and magic. The baianas de acarajê, recognized as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, sell the labor intensive acarajé alongside abará (a bean tamal), passarinha (beef spleen fried in dendê), cocadas (coconut candies), bolinho de estudante (fried granulated tapioca fritters), queijada (coconut tart), and peixe frito (mackeral or sardines fried in dendê).
Although acarajé has become a business throughout Brazil, and has moved outside the religion, it is still dominated by black women, and Candomblé, as a means to bring money into the community and as an act of resistance.
Recently, Evangelical Christians in Brazil have tried to claim acarajé as their holy food, which recalls cultural appropriation of the Catholic Church during the colonial era. Acarajé is from Candomblé as a symbol of Bahia, and is firmly an Afro-Brazilian food, according to the National Association of Baiana Cooks of Acarajé and Mingau (corn porridge).
Acarajé has now made its way to Los Angeles thanks to Sabor da Bahia, free of any appropriation, but still presented with a unique challenge. “None of our customers understand how much time this takes. In Salvador it’s easy to find quality dough, but there’s no where here to buy it premade,” said Reni. No dough, no problem.
The black-eyed pea dough for acarajé is commercially available in Salvador da Bahia, as well as in cities all over Brazil, where baiana believers have spread their culture. In Bahia, inexpensive, high quality dough made with local black-eyed peas merely needs to be seasoned with onions and salt, and well beaten for service. Then balls are formed in large spoons and dropped into hot dendé oil.
When ready, they are split and filled with vatapá (shrimp paste), caruru (okra paste), tomato salad, pimenta (hot sauce), and dried shrimp. Reni and Ilma serve prepare their acarajé with all of these traditional ingredients, except for the vatapá. They also have moqueca de peixe (Bahian fish stew), abará, and pasteís (pastries) on their menu. “Over there [ in Bahia] they just over the dough and season it. We have to make it here in LA from scratch,” laughed Reni. What more could one offer to their orixa?
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