In Salvador, Brazil, Afro Brazilian Religion Shapes Street Food and Fine Dining

Many of the dishes at Dona Mariquita are easily recognizable to anyone familiar with the cuisine of Salvador, the capital city of Brazil’s Bahia state where the restaurant opened in 2006. But a few may surprise some diners. Bobó de camarão, as the beloved local shrimp stew is commonly known, appears as ipeté. Poqueca, a variation of the well-known moqueca, is prepared and served in a banana leaf rather than a stew pot. Latipá, a shrimp stew including onion, dendê oil, and mustard greens, previously made rare appearances, but chef Leila Carreiro removed it from the menu since so few diners recognized it.

“I aim to present [dishes] exactly as they were centuries ago,” says Carreiro, who develops the Dona Mariquita menu by delving into the annals of local history and the seminal writings of intellectual Manuel Querino, a pioneer in researching Bahia’s food history. At Dona Mariquita, Carreiro highlights dishes developed by slaves taken to Brazil by Portuguese colonizers between about 1538 to 1850, when Salvador acted as the gateway to millions of people forcibly transported from West Central Africa and the Bight of Benin. She recreates recipes as African arrivals might have cooked them, utilizing techniques transported across the Atlantic, combined with Indigenous ingredients and practices picked up in Brazil — like the banana leaf in the poqueca.

“We follow the original African recipe with yams,” Carreiro says of her approach to ipeté. “However, with the abundance of cassava in Brazil when the slaves arrived, it became a more common ingredient in the recipe, leading to a subtle modification in both the dish and its nomenclature.”

In recounting the story of Bahia’s culinary past, the dishes at Dona Mariquita evoke the particularly profound influence of Candomblé, a belief system that emerged out of a mix of religions from West Africa, primarily influenced by the Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu peoples.

Over the centuries, Candomblé has interwoven with secular Afro Brazilian culture in Salvador, informed the city’s street food scene, and shaped its culinary reputation more broadly. Chefs like Carreiro are now unpacking this heady blend of faith, food, history, conflict, and culture in more formal settings, while some of Salvador’s most famous restaurants like Manga and Origem put the foods of Candomblé under the microscope of high-end cuisine.

Food is vital to Candomblé rituals, acting as a medium of worship for orixás (deities), which are each characterized by their unique preferred recipes. For instance, one popular dish at Dona Mariquita, a mixture of ground white corn and coconut milk called acaçá de leite, was developed in the 19th century in honor of Oxalá, Candomblé’s patron saint of Bahia. Originally, these dishes would only be found in terreiros, temples where Candomblé rituals are performed, but they eventually spread beyond religious contexts. Open rituals at terreiros allowed guests to learn how to cook orixás’ favorite foods, and adherents also sold items to the wider public.

A customer holds an acarajé, flopped open to reveal shrimp and fillings.

An acarajé from Acarajé da Dinha.
Brenda Matos

A chef scoops fillings into an acarajé at a street stall.

Serving acarajés at Acarajé da Cira.
Brenda Matos

“[Enslaved] women used to sell acaçá de leite on the streets and, with the money, could buy their manumission,” Carreiro explains. “It’s a food that represents freedom.”

That’s also how the fritter known as acarajé became famous. The fried oval of black-eyed peas, onion, dendê oil, dried shrimp, and various toppings was born in the terreiros as an offering to the orisha Iansã. It has since become a ubiquitous street food in Salvador (and one of the first female-dominated professions in the country).

“Thanks to the acarajé, terreiro cuisine transcended into the streets, evolving into a [piece of] cultural heritage of the city and arguably the most representative food of Salvador,” says babalorixá Antonio Carlos Encarnação, who lives in South Miami, where he sells homemade acarajés to Brazilian restaurants and markets. In 2005, the National Institute for Historic and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) made it official, recognizing the work of baianas do acarajé (the women who sell acarajés on the street) as part of Brazil’s national heritage.

After slavery ended in Brazil in 1888, Bahia became home to many slaves’ descendents. Today, Salvador is sometimes called the Blackest city in the world outside the African continent; the 2022 Brazilian census estimated that around 80 percent of the local population is Black or mixed-race.

Only a small percentage of Brazilians practice Afro Brazilian religions like Candomblé today; estimates on the exact number of followers vary widely, due in part to the way some Brazilians partake in bits of many faiths at once. Yet, Candomblé has had an outsized impact on the traditions and representation of Afro Brazilians, especially in Bahia.

A fish filet topped with greens, served with orange farofa and a pool of foam.

Fish with efó, ddendêoil farofa, and okra touille.

Encarnação says acarajés have become “a staple dish that embodies our African roots. No matter the religion of those who eat or sell it, the acarajé will always be a symbol of the cuisine of our ancestors.” Carreiro agrees. Although she doesn’t identify as a filha de santo (adherent of Candomblé), she considers her work at Dona Mariquita to be a mission to “revive the cuisine legacy of my ancestors,” she says. “My ancestry is Black; I want to keep alive the culture of those who came before me.”

Since the 1980s, dishes associated with Candomblé, like caruru (onion- and ginger-laced okra), vatapá (coconuty seafood stew), and mungunzá (sweet hominy porridge), have made their way into casual, egalitarian restaurants. But until recently, few chefs went deep on these dishes.

“Venues focusing on Brazilian cuisine are a new thing in our country; those who have decided to value the traditions of a region [like Bahia] are an even newer phenomenon,” says chef Fabrício Lemos of Origem, who is pardo (of mixed descent) and a filho de santo of Candomblé. “When we decided to focus on our surroundings, we couldn’t help but highlight our products and the pillars of our local cuisine, which is so mixed and deeply influenced by Black heritage.”

When he opened the award-winning Origem in 2016, in partnership with his wife, pastry chef Lisiane Arouca, the two were among the first to offer a tasting menu in Salvador. They were also groundbreakers in exploring the biomes of their native Bahia and representing dishes that were previously rarely found outside local family homes, such as efó, a stew made with a native herb called língua de vaca (cow’s tongue) mixed with dried shrimp and peanuts. According to Lemos, the dish, traditionally an offering to the orisha Nanã, was brought to Salvador by the Yoruba people from western Nigeria.

A hunk of short rib topped with purple flowers in a pool of purplish brown sauce, with a puff of pink cream.

Origem’s monochromatic dish inspired by Nanã Buruku.
Leonardo Freire

Beyond precise reproductions of traditional dishes, chef Lemos also uses Candomblé foodways as a creative jumping-off point. His menus have included ravioli filled with vatapá and a monochromatic dish inspired by Nanã Buruku (a deity in several West African religions and Candomblé), who is associated with the color purple, utilizing purple yam puree, beef hump from Brazilian zebu cattle, and red wine bearnaise.

Not all his riffs on tradition are universally appreciated. One of the first snacks Lemos created for the menu was a recipe that fused two terreiro dishes: acarajé and abará (boiled bean dough steamed in banana leaves). “Today, the dish is a hit and is on the menu of all our restaurants, but in the beginning, I received criticism for serving it and changing traditional recipes that originate from the terreiros,” he says. “From my point of view, we can’t be totally stuck in the past. But the modern cuisine can’t distrust history or ignore the origins.”

It’s only natural that adherents would leap to the defense of Candomblé’s foodways; the religion has been under attack essentially since it was created. The Catholic Church condemned it, and Portuguese colonizers were keen to convert adherents. After a law restricting public ceremonies was thrown out in the 1970s and the fall of the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1980s, a religious revival took off. Candomblé has since earned some nominal acceptance in Brazil, and a 2013 analysis of census data showed a rise in the number of people following Afro Brazilian faiths. Yet, practitioners are still regularly under siege, part of a larger legacy of discrimination, marginalization, and violence against Afro Brazilians that critics say the government has done too little to address.

In one controversial case in 2010s, evangelicals attempted to rename acarajés to bolinhos de Jesus (“Jesus fritters”). Candomblé adherents obtained an injunction forbidding the sale of acarajés by that name, but the incident wasn’t a fluke.

“People often consume traditional Bahian dishes, such as moqueca, without recognizing their African origins in the recipe,” says Elmo Alves, a babalorixá who runs a terreiro on the outskirts of Salvador. “But a fresh perspective on Brazilian cuisine has meant that Candomblé-related food is experiencing a crucial resurgence on the national gastronomic scene.”

“Religions of African origin carried a lot of stigma in a Christian-dominant country,” says Lemos, who considers the dishes at Origem as part of the fight against prejudice. “Attempts were made to distort their values and meanings, imposing a malevolent view on their beliefs. When a chef uses a terreiro dish to highlight its cultural value, he brings these recipes to an important level of recognition.”

Three dishes: A bowl of artistically sliced vegetables, a duck breast on a bed of greens and flowers, and two colorful head-shaped items on a bed of feathers.

Manga’s three-part duck dish.
Leonardo Freire

Even with vocal defenders, the conversation is not always easy around some Candomblé practices, like animal sacrifice. Practitioners sacralize 29 different types of animals before offering them as “food” to various orixás. Though it’s a crucial part of liturgy, it remains a flash point.

“While other religions have their rules and rites, such as the practice of sacrifice, which is present in several cultures and fundamental to many religions, the foods created for our deities were often seen as demonic,” Alves points out. “For a long time our food was named ‘macumba,’ in a very derogatory way,” he says, referring to accusations that Candomblé resembles voodoo or witchcraft.

“Animal sacrifice to the orixás is prevalent in the city. Since childhood, it has always fascinated me,” says Dante Bassi, who, with wife Katrin, opened the buzzy Manga in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood in 2018. Though as a self-described white agnostic, Bassi clarifies that his interest in Candomblé is “purely cultural.”

In a recent tasting menu, the chef presented a three-part duck dish that evoked the trappings of a sacrificial Candomblé ritual: Along with a lacquered duck breast and local produce like toasted palm hearts and ora-pro-nóbis, two faux duck heads (fashioned from crispy duck skin, cajarana fruit, and duck tartare) arrived at tables on a bed of feathers and lavender. Bassi intentionally chose duck, an animal that doesn’t carry particular symbolic value in Candomblé, avoiding accusations of appropriation on a technicality.

The chef emphasizes his appreciation for the way that Candomblé adherents believe a deity’s favorite dishes can bring them to the table for a shared meal. “You offer food, an animal’s life. It’s something you do for people you love, friends you welcome home. So I think it humanizes the gods a little,” Bassi says. “There is no such thing in Christianity, which is very unattainable and disconnected at times.”

While some diners love the dish, it has still prompted criticism. Like others, Bassi acknowledges the ways African roots, including Candomblé, have shaped the cuisine of Salvador as a whole. “It was a natural path for Candomblé recipes, even if only as an inspiration in our case, to also reach the menus of modern restaurants,” he says. “[The food] transcends the religious aspects of Candomblé and has become something cultural in Salvador.”

Despite ongoing discrimination, tourism surrounding Salvador’s Afro Brazilian culture, particularly its cuisine, is a growing economic driver for the city. As chefs make the context around Candomblé’s foods more explicit, they reveal the many contradictions in those dishes — the private and the public, the historical and the erased, the proud and the vulnerable — to visitors.

“Awareness can be a very special seasoning,” says Carreiro, who applauds more restaurants for incorporating terreiro dishes into their menus, but stresses the importance of responsible popularization.

“The more recognition our food receives, the better,” says Alves. In response to the possibility of white chefs cooking the food of Candomblé without context or other reinterpretations of the cuisine, he’s got a simple answer: “In this city, my king, there isn’t a white person without Black blood, even if it’s just a trace,” he says. “We stand as one of the few places globally where Blackness permeates everything — our food, our music. It’s woven into every aspect of our existence.”

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer living between Brazil and Portugal. He is the author of the book The Food Revolutions.

Diners at a wooden patio table eat acarajés and drink beer.

Diners enjoy acarajés at Acarajé da Cira.
Brenda Matos

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