I think it’s fair to say that not everyone loves Brazilian cuisine. Accusations/complaints I hear from time to time include that it is heavy, overly rich and boring. I’m not going to tell you Brazilian food is light and zingy in the way we think of Thai or Peruvian cuisine, but if you take the time to get beyond the obvious stalwarts like feijoada and the churrascaria meat orgies then things get a lot more interesting and, potentially, lighter too. Most dishes can be given a lighter touch with a few tweaks and recently I’ve been playing around with one of Brazil’s most tasty (and interesting!) dishes.
Eating acarajé is like taking a delicious bite out of Brazil’s past. When I first started learning about Brazilian cuisine one of the things I found most fascinating was the clear links back to West Africa that were still very evident. Acarajé was brought to Brazil by the slaves taken from Ghana and Nigeria – I’m told you can buy Akara (as it is known there) on the streets of Lagos to this very day.
For those unfamiliar, acarajés are fritters made from black-eyed beans – the finished item (somewhat reminiscent of a falafel) is split open and filled with dried shrimp, a nutty, shrimpy paste called vatapá, an okra based mix called carurú, a dab of hot sauce and, optionally, a salsa-like mix of tomatoes, cucumber and coriander/cilantro. They come from Bahia, Brazil’s heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, and are traditionally sold by baianas, the hugely photogenic women dressed in the traditional garb of of the state (vestuário).
At first sight, making acarajé seems like so much work that it’s one of those things best left to others (see also: puff pastry). But the nice thing about doing it yourself is that you get to tweak the recipe, play around with the flavours and generally make it just the way like (and most likely annoy the hell out of the purists). There’s only one hassly step but once that’s out of the way it’s a really enjoyable dish to prepare: