Acarajé – an iconic Brazilian snack

If Italy is a pizza, the USA is a hamburger and Mexico a taco, what would Brazil be? Most travellers to Brazil would tell you it’s an acarajé. Once sampled, the taste of acarajé, or merely the aroma of the bubbling dendê oil in which it is fried, provides a Proustian burst of memory that encapsulates the experience of Brazil in a mouthful of deep-fried deliciousness.

Not all Brazilians would agree that this humble fritter made from black-eyed-peas is their iconic national snack-food because within Brazil acarajé is specifically associated with the north-eastern state of Bahia and its Afro-brazilian culture. Most Brazilians would admit, however, that the uniqueness of acarajé (there’s really nothing very similar) and the fact that it is so intimately linked to the culture and religion brought to Brazil by the millions of Africans who came as slaves gives acarajé a claim to be a national culinary symbol, even a national treasure.

Certainly the Brazilian Institute of National Historical and Artistic Patrimony (known by its Portuguese acronym IPHAN) would concur with the elevation of acarajé to such heights. In 2005 it added acarajé and the streetside sale of acarajé by traditionally-dressed women known as baianas (below) to the national heritage list of immaterial treasures.

Until recently, in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia, local bylaws restricted the sale of acarajé to women who wore the traditional dress of a baiana – a long skirt and overblouse, all in pure white, with a white turban to match and brilliantly-beaded necklaces and bracelets. Today one can occasionally see a man selling acarajé or a contemporary baiana might only add a turban to her wardrobe of jeans and T-shirt, but most acarajé vendors still honour the traditions of their profession.

The best acarajés are those made in the traditional way, using traditional techniques. Dried black-eyed peas are soaked overnight, and then the skins are laboriously removed one by one. Next the peas are pounded into a batter (though a blender is often used these days). Finally, the batter is shaped into a flattened ball with large wooden spoons and the ball is dropped into a pan of hot dendê oil to fry, like a doughnut or fritter. Dendê oil is a brilliant-orange flavoursome oil derived from the fruit of a palm, and it’s dendê that gives acarajé much of its flavour. Once cooked, the acarajé is split open and a number of ingredients are added to make something like a sandwich. Hot pepper sauce (pimenta) is traditional, but one can opt out if one’s tolerance for spice is low. A creamy paste of breadcrumbs, coconut milk and dendê, called vatapá, follows. A simple mixture of chopped green tomatoes, onions and cilantro called salada goes next, and then small dried shrimps, still in their shells and eaten whole, top off the acarajé. It’s served wrapped in a piece of paper or napkin and eaten immediately, piping hot.

Unlike pizzas or tacos, acarajé hasn’t really spread beyond the borders of its homeland to be adopted by other cultures and climates. Acarajé is still tied to a specific place, a specific tropical climate, and a specifically African-based culture. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s just one more reason to visit Brazil – to eat acarajé.

by James Pearce, who runs the fantastic Flavors of Brazil blog – a great place to learn more about the foods of Brazil.

Plus, here’s a video of acarajé being made. It’s in Portuguese but very easy to follow:

Check out our Food & Drink section to learn more about Brazilian food and other Latin American cuisine.

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