Last weekend we had a friend from London to stay. This was fun, not just because our guest was nice and not only because she brought us all kinds of yummy goodies from home, but also because her presence pushed us into doing a whole bunch of sight-seeing things that we probably wouldn’t have bothered with otherwise. We wandered around a favela, we went to see some samba (these guys) and spent a fair bit of time eating and drinking in Santa Teresa. 

One of the places we ended up was Armazém São Thiago, a really nice old bar that dates back to 1919. The bar itself does pretty yummy food, but even better than that, on Sundays there is a lady just outside the bar cooking Acarajé

A delicious bundle of spicy goodness. I am designating acarajé as an essential food – see the others in the list by clicking the ‘essential food’ label on the right (Photo: Leonardo Martins).


Acarajé is a dish from the northeastern state of Bahia, and is usually sold by women from that state (Baianas) dressed in white clothes and a colourful headscarf. The northeastern states of Brazil have close ties with West Africa because of the slave trade and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that there is a very similar dish made in Ghana and Nigeria called Akara. 

As delicious as acarajé is, it also sounds like a real pain to make. The main part is a fritter, a little like a falafel, made from black-eye peas that have had their skins removed in a time-consuming process of soaking and rubbing. The blended pea mixture is then dropped into dendê (palm) oil and deep-fried until golden brown. 

This is what black-eye peas look like after you soak them in water for 24 hours, remove their skins and then put them in a blender. I can think of some other Black-eyed Peas I’d like to do that to…

After draining off the excess oil, each fritter is cut open, sandwich style, and various goodies are added. First a very spicy hot sauce, followed by vatapá (a delicious mush made with breadcrumbs, ginger, chilli, peanuts, cashew nuts, onion and tomato). Next caruru (a condiment made with okra, onion, shrimp and palm oil). Then a crunchy mix of herbs, green tomatoes and onion. And finally some salty dried shrimp are added. 

The Baiana making it look so easy…

What you end up with looks something like the first image of this post – a delicious, spicy bundle which is literally bursting with flavour (eating can be tricky, so expect things to get messy). 

Acarajé components: dried shrimp, vatapá, hot sauce and note the bottle of dendê oil at the back (and don’t forget the blended black-eye peas). Getting all this prepared is not going to be worth it unless you have some friends coming round.  

I love cooking, but did you notice how many ingredients are involved here? If you really want to try making acarajé then there is a recipe here at Flavors of Brazil (though James himself says that it was such the hassle he probably wouldn’t do it again!). A more enjoyable alternative would be to take a trip to Salvador in Bahia where there are Baianas selling acarajé on every corner!

She did all this so that we didn’t have to.
10 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The baianas are called 'tias' locally. I hear there are non-shrimp versions, though I believe it's the same thing just minus the shrimp. I've also been told that they aren't for the weak of stomach.

  2. Tom Le Mesurier
    Tom Le Mesurier says:

    Yes, I can imagine if you had a sensitive stomach then the spice in acarajé could cause a problem. But I don't think it's a real danger-dish – the shrimp have been salted and dried (far safer than shrimp that is 'fresh') and the fritter is cooked in front of you. As with all street foods, if there is a steady stream of customers then chances are you'll be fine.

  3. The Gritty Poet
    The Gritty Poet says:

    I have always heard Bahianas referred to as, well, Bahianas (actually since they are usually elderly ladies I am kind of embarrased to call them that, so I stick to "a senhora"). I must say that I have yet to witness one being called Tia. Humn, perhaps mine is a more formal street food milieu.
    Acaraje rules. I find Bahia food to be the best of Brazilian regional cuisine, just wonderful.
    I do take exception to the couscous for breakfast thing though, yuck.

  4. Alex
    Alex says:

    TIA, get me one of those things pronto! my mouth is watering.

    ACARAJE sounds more like a town to me than a food, but whatvs. I love Baianos even though I've never actually met one =/.


  5. brasilicana
    brasilicana says:

    Actually, the dish in Africa called Akara is directly linked with Bahian acarajé. Apparently, "Akara jé!" in the African language (can't remember which one specifically) means "Eat akara!" and that's what the akara sellers used to yell in order to attract people to their stands. So the dish then became known in Brazil as acarajé.

    There's a variation called abará in which the beans are wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed rather than fried – a good option for those who can't stomach the dende oil.

  6. Tom Le Mesurier
    Tom Le Mesurier says:

    @Alex – my wife says that Bahia is the best state in Brazil. I haven't been yet but am hoping to head up that way for Christmas/New Year.

    @Brasilicana – Acarajé sem dendê? Nooooo! (though I'm sure my arteries would thank me for it – I gather dendê is really high in saturated fat…)

  7. Brae
    Brae says:

    Great posts Tom. I absolutely love you blog after stumbling on it only a few short weeks ago. My first run in with a Baiana was a Tapioca de Maceio food stand in Vitoria – amazing!!!

  8. Tom Le Mesurier
    Tom Le Mesurier says:

    Hi again Brae, how nice, thanks! You know Tapioca is something I've been kind of holding on the back burner. I've only had it once and it was during a very stressful day in a Cartório (trying to finalise my documents so I could get married and we were up against the clock). Somehow the negative association stuck. But I watched a tapioca guy today and they looked really yummy (requeijão and peperoni!). I have a feeling I'm going to really enjoy them when I finally give them another chance! 🙂


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