By Bryan Gregory Sanders, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL- Bahian women hustling with assembly line precision can only mean two things: acarajé street food and a line of hungry customers about to have that “Brazilian experience”. Acarajé consists of peeled black eyed peas mashed into a paste with a splash of onion and deep fried in an often unforgivably strong smelling dendê (palm oil).
Then once cooled, sliced in half and generously crammed with vatapá (bread, shrimp, coconut milk, finely ground peanuts, and palm oil mashed into a creamy paste) and caruru made of okra, onion, shrimp, more palm oil and toasted nuts (peanuts and or cashews) all topped with spice.
Street food anywhere is the standard of authenticity, if it is made and sold on the street there is little doubt that the outcome will be the real deal. In Rio it is no different, the large number of migrants from Bahia bring original African recipes and flavors that go back hundreds of years and have become an integral part of Brazilian cuisine.
Acarajé is a dish from the Northeastern state of Bahia, deeply rooted in Nigeria where it is called Akara. It is a mainstay in the Afro-Brazilian communities and holds religious significance in the polytheistic Candomblé religion as an offering to the gods Iansan and Exu.
Candomblé women in traditional white or colorful dress with their heads wrapped – slowly prepare each dish. It is almost exclusively made by women, taking care that each plate is made by hand with love and dedication. Culturally in the Candomblé religion, only women in the faith are to make acarajé, causing tension with other businesses trying to cash in on the Bahian dish’s popularity.
Last year, mayor Eduardo Paes gave the authorization to allow the group Associacao de Baianas de Acarajé and Mingau no Rio de Janeiro to sell on the streets as legitimate businesses. Paes support was a big victory for acarajé and the women trying to keep it in traditional circles.
Acarajé can be found in praças with heavy foot traffic like downtown Centro’s Largo da Carioca, and in front of the Arcs of Lapa, on Friday and Saturday nights. Nega Teresa, a local favorite, is another stand in Santa Teresa only open 6:30PM until 11PM on Rua Almirante Alexandrino, 1458 (in front of Correios).
One of the easiest places to find the Bahian street success is at the Feira Hippie (Hippie Fair) where there are two acarajé stands that serve a variety of desserts. The famous and obligatory hippie market that, as of late, has been equal parts artisan and souvenirs with a sprinkle of hippie styled goods.
Anyone looking for the perfect t-shirt, painting, Argentine woven rug, unusual musical instrument, jewelry, or maybe just a place to people watch for a few hours, the market will have something for you.
Follow the crowd (and the strong permeating palm oil aroma), pick up some acarajé, and ask for it spicy. The hippie market of Ipanema at Praça General Osório is open weekly on Sundays from 10AM until 5PM.