ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Abigail Gregg (class of 2015) has Bachelors degrees in Anthropology and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. In her four years of undergraduate education she conducted research on food systems’ cultural roles both abroad and in south Los Angeles. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Policy and Administration in Development Practice at Columbia University.
As far as regional food goes in Brazil, Bahian food – or at least some aspects of it – is popular, well known, and distinct from that of many other Brazilian states. Even outside of Bahia, one can find recreations of some of the more popular dishes in cities like São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. When I arrived in Salvador, Bahia’s capital, I could see why: the food there, while definitely Brazilian, was distinct from what I’d experienced in other areas, and street vendors, common in other cities, were prolific. When I talked to people about Bahian food, however, I was given several qualifiers and warnings, in particular by one of my professors at the Federal University of Bahia.Remember, I was told, Bahia is the only place where you can really find Bahian street food, but not all of the food you find on the street here is truly Bahian. Nearly everyone I talked to had their own version of which food was Bahian or wasn’t and why. Aspects like tradition, family experience, and race were all tied in to food much the same way that they tied in to the overall Bahian identity. Whether or not someone accepted a food into their definition of Bahian cuisine was strongly linked to how they viewed themselves (or didn’t) as Bahian. The question of what qualifies street food in Bahia as Bahian food extends far beyond what the dish itself consists of. These qualifiers vary across demographics, letting us understand street food and its role as an important extension of the Bahian sense of self.
Bahia, at the beginning of the colonization of Brazil, contained one of the most important seaports in Brazil. The size of the Bahia de Todos os Santos (“All-saints Bay”) and its location at the intersection of the Atlantic rainforest, the Cacao Coast, and the Coconut Coast made it crucial for trade and immigration. This location also became the main site of major slave trades coming into Brazil and other parts of the Americas. Bahia became a vibrant cultural mix of Portuguese colonizers, indigenous Brazilians, and African laborers. Especially on the coast, the presence of West African culture was, and remains, incredibly influential. This presents itself strongly in Bahian cuisine’s use of palm oil, hot peppers, b
lack-eyed peas, okra, stews, and other ingredients and techniques from western Africa. Portuguese ingredients and dishes as well as native Brazilian ingredients also play a role in Bahian food, but the factor separating it from the rest of Brazilian cuisine is definitely its ties to Africa. In Salvador, a city where over eighty percent of the population can trace some level of African descent, food is one of the strongest ties the Afro-Brazilian community has to a disrupted past and country. Selling this food on the street becomes a marker of heritage, a way to reclaim and recreate a history and identity. This food not only brings together the people who make and eat it, but also connects them to the ancestors who came before them, making and eating the same food on both sides of the Atlantic.
One of the areas of Bahian cuisine that most strongly emphasizes this connection to Africa and to ancestors is the food that was traditionally served in Candomblé rituals. Candomblé is a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion in which food is an essential part of many rituals and ceremonies. The food is offered to the deities, and also shared with visitors and the temple initiates. Food eaten in Candomblé ceremonies is intended to nourish both the body and the spirit. It is a way of establishing links between men, gods, ancestors, and nature, of making the spiritual connection between them tangible. Kitchens of the Candomblé temple are considered sacred places and are generally closed to all except for the cooks, usually the head priestesses and priests. Food is used in the temple yards in two different ways: a spiritual use of food as food saint, and a social use of food as food of the people. Part of the spiritual food is prepared separately and offered to one or more deities being celebrated. The worshipers do not consume this food; it is left at the altar for several days, giving the deity time to consume its essence. Then the offering is moved to somewhere in nature that is considered property of the deity to which it was offered. The rest of the temple food, which is not cooked under the same level of scrutiny as the offerings, will be shared with those present for the ceremony.
Acarajé, a traditional Afro-Brazilian food with Candomblé roots, has become an icon of Bahia and its food and people. In the Candomblé tradition, acarajé is associated with Iansã, one of the more popular deities. It is sold on the streets by women whose personal deity is Iansã; traditionally, these women may even be her priestesses or initiates. Known as “Baianas,” they are dressed in white lace dresses and turbans that can be traced back to the dress of the house slaves and decorative domestic servants of Brazil’s colonial period. Acarajé itself and the women who sell it are held up as images of Bahia, appearing frequently on tourism materials, souvenirs, and advertisements. As a food, acarajé contains many ingredients and qualities typically associated with Bahian cuisine. It is made of a fritter of black-eyed peas fried in palm oil, which is then split in half and covered in a homemade hot pepper sauce. Then Bahian style vatapá, a paste made from shrimp, coconut and groundnuts, is added, along with chopped salsa, an okra-based condiment called caruru, and a garnish of dried shrimp.
Despite its roots in Bahian history, the popularity of acarajé in the tourism market has made some Bahians regard it as less authentic. They object to its omnipresence and its extensive marketing, when there are many other traditional and more commonly eaten Bahian street foods. Acarajé definitely is not something to be eaten daily; it is rich, heavy and spicy. While not prohibitively expensive, it is also not generally the cheapest option, especially since the acarajé stands near popular tourist destinations often charge two or three times as much as those in more residential neighborhoods. This causes acarajé to be viewed with derision, especially among older, middle to upper class people who do not consider street food a large part of their diet. It is no longer a traditional food, but something prepared by performers for tourists and late-night partiers. Among younger and less affluent Bahians, however, acarajé is still popular and to enjoy it with all the toppings, intense spiciness, and heavy palm oil, is a marker of being Bahian.
Although there are a number of famous acarajé spots that show up in guidebooks and have lines stretching down the street, most people are loyal to one in their neighborhood, near their work, or one run by someone they know. These tend to be smaller, have irregular hours, and more diverse workers who aren’t traditional Baianas. As dictated by the typical image of a Baiana, however, those who sell in the popular tourist spots are women in old-fashioned lace dresses. These sellers are seen as upholding the stereotype of a Bahian woman present in the Brazilian cultural consciousness. Nearly always Afro-Brazilian, they are expected to be sweet, pleasant, almost subservient to the customer, and beautiful. There is more distance placed between them and the customer than with most other street vendors, and they do not engage in as much haggling over the price or bantering while the food is prepared. Their lace dresses are cut low in the front, cinched around the waist, and involve many underskirts to accentuate the hips. The ideal Baiana is attractive, but not aggressively so, and eager to please. She is meant to be presentable and feminine at all times while preparing and serving the food, no simple goal when cooking a food that involves pounding beans, beating vats of dough, frying foods, and keeping track of a constant stream of orders. While this all makes for a very pleasant tourist experience, it also ends up overshadowing and denying many other Bahian female identities that the Baianas represent.
Ana, one of the girls with whom I did my research, sold acarajé next to the lighthouse in Salvador, a popular tourist destination. At work, she wore delicate gold earrings, a large turban and skirts, smiled at customers, and was professionally pleasant and demure. Off work, however, Ana is part of Salvador’s significant queer community. She identifies as lesbian, wears men’s clothing, and has several facial piercings and a small mohawk. She rides a motorcycle, lives alone or with whomever she is currently dating, and when she does not work on weekends, goes out clubbing. While not exactly mainstream, Ana’s lifestyle is by no means unusual in Salvador and is, anywhere besides an acarajé stand, definitely easier to encounter than stereotypical Baianas. This masculine- presenting, proudly queer personality, in which she feels most comfortable, is denied by her job because it would conflict with the identity projected to the tourists. Ana does not feel particularly restricted by her job, and generally finds her costume amusing, especially when friends visit her at her job for the first time. As she pointed out to me, many people, especially in the service industry, have uniforms that are meant to project an image that is not theirs. The Baiana, however can be more problematic as it stands for Bahian femininity as a whole and does, at least to the casual visitor, obscure the complexity of Bahian female identities.
Sold by the same vendors as acarajé, and containing nearly all the same ingredients, abará is also a popular street food, although less popular with tourists. Instead of being fried in palm oil, the black-eyed pea base is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Like an acarajé, it is then cut in half and topped with the same condiments. Many people who are repelled by acarajé’s status as a food for tourists or who desire something that isn’t fried enjoy abará, and it is generally even considered a little more authentically Bahian, since it is less publicized and easier to eat regularly. A scene in the film Ó Pai Ó illustrates this concept, contrasting a shopkeeper in Salvador who, while not the most upstanding character, is definitely Bahian, with a woman named Psilene who, though born in Salvador, left for Europe and has now returned with a questionable history. The shopkeeper, after opening in midmorning, asks his assistant to go get an abará from his favorite Baiana. Psilene announces, nearly the moment she is off the plane, that the thing she wants to do most is eat an acarajé, which she promptly orders from the same stand. This illustrates the abará-acarajé divide well, the abará siding with that which is conventional, old-fashioned, and quotidian, and the acarajé with that which has an element of tourism, a party lifestyle, and popularity.
Ordering an acarajé would not necessarily indicate that Psilene had lost touch were it not also for the factor of timing. While the abará, generally prepared ahead of time, are ready shortly after a Baiana opens her stand, she does not start frying acarajé until later in the day, around lunchtime, as they are considered a food for the afternoon and evening. Adding to this, Psilene, who is trying to make a grand entrance after her time in Europe, asks the Baiana to put some French mustard on her acarajé. The look of repugnance on the Baiana’s face as she asks this shows just how much this discredits her. Psilene is trying to do to the acarajé what she attempted to do to her own life: to take something from Bahia and gloss over it, to cover up its true nature and flavor it with a coat of European toppings. By ordering the acarajé early, and trying to add European condiments to it, Psilene shows herself to have forgotten the rhythm and flavor of Bahian life, to have given up her roots. She ends up associating the acarajé and those who order it with a disregard for the deeper significance of Bahian street food.
Not all street food is subject to the same kind of scrutiny as acarajé. Every afternoon, a little before lunch breaks, the corn vendors roll their steamer carts out to corners all along the major streets of Salvador. They are selling boiled ears of corn, and two types of pamonha, a Brazilian dish comparable to a tamale. Made either of corn or tapioca mixed with coconut and wrapped in cornhusks or banana leaves to steam, pamonha are slightly sweet and eaten with butter. When you buy from a corn vendor, they will extract whatever you have ordered from their steamer with tongs and ask you if you would like it to eat there on the street, or to take home. How this question is answered indicates a number of things about your place in Bahian society and your identity within it. If someone chooses to take his purchase home, the corn or pamonha is an accompaniment to the meal they will eat when they arrive there, a treat picked up on the way home from work, and will be only a component of a meal.
Those purchasing to go generally either have a housekeeper at home, cooking a meal for them while they are at work, or are the housekeepers themselves, operating under instructions from their employers. The food will be eaten by those with the sort of funding needed to ensure that they live close to where they work and have a meal waiting for them when they return, generally upper middle class or upper class Soteropolitanos. This removal of the food from its source creates a distinction between this consumer, the vendor, and the other customers; the relationship this purchase entails lasts only as long as the transaction. While those who take their purchase home may frequent one particular stand, and therefore develop a sort of familiarity with the vendor, this loyalty generally reflects the convenient location of the stand for them and not any sort of personal connection to the vendor other than geography.
However, eating a pamonha or cob of corn on the street changes this dynamic. Choosing to eat there means that the pamonhas will be opened, sliced, brushed with butter and placed on an extra husk to act as a plate. This not only prolongs the vendor-customer interaction during purchase, but also means that the customer will probably be sticking around for at least a little while after. Corn and pamonha, while technically edible while one walks down the street, are a little messy, and much easier and more enjoyable to consume if one stands or sits around for some minutes. During the times around lunch breaks and before dinner, when school and work are over, small crowds gather around the vendors, sitting on overturned buckets or leaning against a nearby building. They chat with each other and the vendor, and become active participants of a small, temporary community. Like those who get their food to go, it is likely that they have gone to this particular stand because it is in a convenient location for them.
But because they stick around, they build a stronger relationship with the food vendor. People do not generally stay and eat on the street because they prefer it. It is generally done out of necessity, either because their home it too far, their lunch break is too short, or they do not have enough money to always take the bus home and have lunch. Pamonhas are relatively cheap and filling, and so become a good choice as a snack or quick meal if money is a problem. Neither of these two options is universally regarded as the proper Bahian approach to eating corn or pamonha. Those who eat at home believe that the value of family lunchtime is an essential aspect of their identity, while those who eat on the street point to Salvador’s prolific street food and the culture surrounding it as uniquely Bahian. Most, however, tend to view both options as viable for this particular food, acknowledging that their actions are products of circumstance rather than beliefs.
That said, not all street foods can be taken home for later. Picolé vendors walk around by beaches, schools, and bus stops carrying coolers full of popsicles made from tropical fruit. Some of these popsicles are factory-made, and come in wrappers, while others are made at home by the vendors, and come out of the cooler bare. Being fresh, and less processed, homemade picolés tend to be tastier, and always cheaper than the mass-produced version. There is, however, no quality control over the environments in which homemade picolés are produced, and because they are stored together, there exists a potential for contamination. When a picolé is ordered, the vendor reaches into the cooler and pulls out the requested flavor with a thin napkin. Despite the napkin, in a cooler full of unwrapped popsicles, reaching in and out can also introduce contaminants. Interestingly, many of the Bahians I asked about this were not concerned about it. Only one friend of mine said that once she’d seen a picolé vendor relieve himself in a side street and then return to taking orders, which convinced her to never consume any picolé, wrapped or not. No one that I spoke with had ever gotten sick from eating a picolé, nor did they know anyone who had. They took it on faith that the vendors would try their best to be sanitary. By trusting that vendors will do his best to provide a quality product, these customers make picolé-making a viable occupation, feeding an internal economy that extends to the local fruit stands that picolé vendors source from.
Street food, popular and plentiful in Brazil, is particularly vibrant in the state of Bahia. The food there reflects the significant West African influence left in Bahia from the slave trade, and contains ingredients which are uncommon in the regional cuisine of other states. However, residents don’t accept every type of street food as authentically Bahian, and most make clear distinctions between street food and truly Bahian street food. Although legitimate, these distinctions are personal and dependent on age, social status, and socioeconomic status. Additionally, although the flavors and products of the northeast are essential to Bahian cuisine, they are not the single determining factor of authenticity. True Bahian-ness is judged not only on what goes into the food, but the whole narrative behind it: the seller, the buyer, the time and location. These additional considerations play a large role in differences of opinion, but also allow for individuals’ flexibility to create their own Bahian identity through what they eat. Street food is important in Bahian society; it provides convenient, cheap meals for those who work far from home and sustains a large portion of both the touristic and internal economies. Because the definition of Bahian authenticity is subjective, it is possible both to confidently stick to tradition and to create an identity within the system of street food, as Ana did. In this way, the making and consuming of street food becomes a discourse. The food eaten or created validates the creator as a Bahian, who in turn adds his version of the meaning of authenticity to the discussion.
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