While doing research for my book, I was shocked to find out that it was the Portuguese who introduced chilies, among other plants, to Asia. That’s right. This mainstay of most Asian cuisines was originally a New World crop found most plentifully in South America’s Amazon basin. What confounded me even more was the fact that Brasilian cuisine, to a great extent does not even employ their native chilies, and that people there do not have a fondness for spicy food. You have to go to the northeastern state of Bahia to even encounter pimenta (pepper).
Bahia is a noteworthy for its capital, Salvador, the port where the Portuguese brought an estimated 7-8 million slaves from Africa (compared to about 800,000 that were brought to the U.S.). The African influence is everywhere, from the groups doing capoeira (the African martial art that closely resembles dance) on the street, to the drum troops, to the small ubiquitous stalls selling Acarajé. Of all the food I had in Brasil, this simple spicy dish was my favorite.
Acarajé is a fritter made from black-eyed peas and deep-fried to a crisp golden brown indendê (palm oil). After being split in half like a sandwich, they are stuffed with vatapá and caruru—thick, spicy pastes made with cassava, cashews and okra. Then fried shrimp, and a salad of tomatoes, onions and cilantro tops it all off. And of course, a generous dousing of hot sauce (tiny malagueta peppers soaking in oil and vinegar). On the streets of Salvador on down to Rio, you will find Afro-Brasilian women clad in a throwback attire of white cotton “puff” gowns and headscarves serving what has become the country’s favorite street food. It is interesting to note that virtually the same dish is still popular in Nigeria and Ghana, two countries from where slaves were brought. It just goes to show how much history and culture is connected to food.