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Brazzil - Food and Culture - April 2004

A Food Pilgrimage to Bahia, Brazil

For once, forget the music and the dancing. I went to Brazil
for a good meal and a strong drink to wash it all down. And
I wasn't disappointed. I'm not sure how this happened,
considering my low tolerance for alcohol, but every
morning in Salvador I'd wake up sober. Not one hangover.

Bondo Wyszpolski


Picture "Religious city, colonial city, black city of Bahia," writes Jorge Amado in Jubiabá; and he's just warming up: "Sumptuous churches embroidered in gold, houses with blue-tiled fronts, ancient two-story buildings inhabited by misery, streets and halls paved with cobblestones…"

Past Is Prologue

From the ramparts of São Felipe, an old fort near Humaitá Point in the Monte Serrat district, the historical center of Salvador da Bahia is a couple of miles and a curving coastline away. Amado's colorful city sparkles less from this distance.

Built between 1583 and 1587, São Felipe with its thick, whitewashed walls sits on a grassy knoll (a few heavy black cannons on the lawn seem to be grazing rather than guarding), still waiting for enemy ships to enter the channel. Today, the fort and its weapons are as quaint as they are ineffective, and yet are a reminder that possession of this land came at a price.

Brazil was discovered in 1500, and Salvador, in the northeast part of the country, was its first capital, from 1549 to 1762. The French would try to gain a foothold near Rio de Janeiro, but in this part of the vast territory it was the Dutch who were trying to carve a slice of the pie for themselves. They tried to take Salvador in 1624 and were repelled. They tried again, and with better luck, in 1638. However, the Portuguese retook it in 1724, and there matters have stood.

I'd come to Salvador a few days earlier after an all-night flight on Varig from Los Angeles to São Paulo. After customs, there was another flight, also on Varig, a two-hour jaunt up to Salvador. As we approached, I noticed the blue water, the white sand, and two guys sitting under a parasol at Praias do Flamengo.

As we landed, palm trees appeared on the edges of the runway. Although able to accommodate international flights, the Aeroporto Luís Eduardo Magalhães is neither large nor complicated, and there's something of a bamboo tunnel one drives through upon entering or leaving it that adds a folksy, signature touch, and a tropical caress.

I was greeted by an old friend, Thomas Smith Neto, who'd spent his childhood in Salvador, and then the next quarter of a century in the United States. Ten years ago he returned to the land of his birth, and in that time has married a Bahiana named Gilda and fathered a daughter. Nicole just turned 3, but she's going to have a lot of boyfriends in a few years—so Tom might want to start saving up for a shotgun to keep her suitors at bay.

The airport is about 45 minutes by car from the Pelourinho, the historical center's center and must-see tourist destination. There are, of course, several outlying neighborhoods and districts, and Tom and his family live in one called Pituba. From his apartment I could look down on the Avenida Otávio Mangabeira and the beaches of Armação and the Jardim de Alá. This, the Atlantic Ocean side of Salvador, is dotted with small coastal towns all the way to Bahia's neighboring state of Sergipe.

In his younger days, Tom was an outstanding soccer player and a serious drinker. Injuries and family life have redrawn the boundaries a little, but his convivial attitude was just the ticket for a visitor less outgoing who nonetheless wanted to taste, literally, the best—and the most authentic—that Salvador has to offer.

Food, Glorious Food

There are many kinds of regional dishes in Bahia, from vatapá to xinxim (pronounce it "shing-shing") and moqueca, and most of them go well with an alcoholic beverage. The Largo de Santana, behind the Santana church in the Rio Vermelho district, is as good a place as any to go and hang out under the open sky.

It's about a 15-minute drive from the oldest parts of town, accessible by driving along the coast or cutting across the hills—the latter affording a view of the favelas, or shanty towns, that may be missed if one sticks only to the beaches.

There are some fine hotels in the Rio Vermelho neighborhood, and many tourists stay here (as well as at Ondina two miles west). One of the hotels, the Double Blue, is on a seaside hilltop, and at sunset from the lounge there's a nice view all the way to the Barra lighthouse.

The Largo da Mariquita—with its informal seafood restaurants and bars—is just below, and the Largo de Santana is not much further. This is where we sampled Dinha's acarajé, which Tom says is the best acarajé in town. Maybe it is. But everywhere one goes in Brazil (and subsequent to Salvador I would spend a few days in São Paulo), there's always someone boasting that their restaurant has the best feijoada or churrasco in the entire country.

Acarajé is the real deal. Throughout Bahia, black women in traditional white blouses and skirts, often with white headscarves, sit behind a cart or booth and serve acarajé—beanpaste dumplings crisply cooked in palm oil, dressed in peppers and onions, and topped with shrimp sauce.

When the late French writer Albert Camus was in Bahia he noted that, "We eat dishes that are spicy enough to make cripples walk again." Well, some of these same pots must still be simmering after half a century.

No Budweiser

To accompany our acarajé we ordered a bottle of beer, and until recently the choice was pretty much between Brahma and Antarctica. These are the only two brands I remember from when I was in Rio nearly 20 years ago. Now there's more competition.

Beer drinkers tend to be quite faithful to their chosen brand, but those who aren't connoisseurs may find the difference to be about the same as between Pepsi and Coke. I've tried others as well, from Primus and Bohemia to Kaiser and Skol, but what I've come away with is not a preference for type but a fascination with how much effort goes into keeping them cold.

Beer companies not only supply bars and restaurants with banners and signs, they provide tables and chairs and now high-tech fridge-freezers. Brazilians, it appears, are adamant about having their beer served just this side of freezing, which means that a waiter who is careless, who touches the bottle below the beer line, will be taken to task.

So how does one keep a beer cold in a hot place like Brazil? By serving the 600 ml. bottles (slightly less than two 12 oz. cans) in Styrofoam beer huggers. Since the glass into which the beer is poured holds only about five ounces, the chances of it getting warm are slim. All of the fridge-freezers I saw displayed the inner temperature in glowing red digital numbers.

In the United States, baseball, football and a basketball vie with one another as the national pastime, but in Brazil the only sport that really galvanizes people is soccer. Tio Medrado, in Pituba, is a typical open-air, casual establishment where people can go to have their cold beer and watch a soccer game (Tio means uncle, and so the name of the place implies that it's friendly and inviting).

Tio Medrado may or may not, as advertised, have "the best crabs in Bahia," but the various shellfish dishes, aided by limes and peppers, will certainly hit the spot. When there's a game on television—and it's hard to imagine when there isn't—everyone is glued to the screen, so it's kind of like being in a low-key, kicked-back sports bar. The place erupts into cheers each time the Bahian team scores a goal.

Street Commerce

Pituba is an upper middle class residential district that used to be a vacation spot on the outskirts of old Salvador, but now it's part of the larger metropolis. The nice location doesn't mean it's entirely safe, however, and I'll assume it's still more or less true that three-quarters of the city's population (of over two-and-a-half million) are unemployed or underemployed.

The very poor eke out a living as street vendors, and at times there are so many of them—mixed in among the people who are simply asking for a few coins—that it's impossible to sit at an open plaza and have an in-depth conversation without being interrupted.

What's amazing is the variety of things offered for sale: in the span of half an hour in the Largo de Santana we were shown jewelry, pirated CDs, cheese balls, candles, sparklers, peanuts and cigarettes.

I'll say this about Tom, he never sends anyone packing without first taking some interest in what they're selling. In other words, he doesn't pretend not to see them or to deny their humanity. Occasionally there were pleasantries exchanged, a joke, or some insightful observation. One young boy, a street urchin by the looks of him, politely pointed out that I shouldn't leave my camera in the open—even though it was right in front of me—because someone might snatch it. No, he wasn't referring to himself.

Put simply, most people do what they can to make an honest living, but a few will seize an opportunity to make off with something if it looks easy. The best way to avoid trouble is not to raise a red flag, i.e., stumbling out of a bar and fumbling for one's car keys. But isn't this the same advice you'd give to anyone in almost every town who emerges from a bar after a few drinks?

My first exposure to the older part of Salvador involved going from the high city to the low city by way of the Lacerda Elevator, which is among the most distinguishable landmarks in the city. There's quite a view from the square that overlooks the Comércio district and the port down below, and the ride up or down is only about two cents.

Across the street is a plaza (the Praça Cairu) with artisans' stalls and then a large yellow structure with a red-tiled roof. This is the Mercado Modelo, constructed in 1861 as a customs building. Today it contains a warren of shops that sell regional arts and crafts.

Walk upstairs, and you'll find the Restaurante Maria de São Pedro. There's an indoor dining area that looks more like a ballroom, but outside there's a balcony that girdles the back half of the building and faces towards the channel that separates Salvador from the island of Itaparica. Crossing over isn't hard; by ferry it's about three or four miles. The novelist João Ubaldo Ribeiro used to live on Itaparica, and his novel The Lizard's Smile takes place there.

Naturally, we had a meal in the Mercado Modelo's upstairs restaurant—specifically shrimp moqueca, which is stewed in palm oil, herbs and coconut milk—but it was a bit pricey. We returned the same way. To the left of the elevator as we headed back up are some of the many old and dilapidated buildings that apparently are not among the 600 or so in the Pelourinho that are on the Unesco World Heritage list and have been restored.

The Pelourinho

In his book, Why Is This Country Dancing?, John Krich says of the Pelourinho that "this is certainly the most photogenic set of square blocks on the planet, an architectural storehouse splashed in extravagant Latin shades." That's because most of what you find there in the 21st century was there in the 16th and 17th, and has been preserved and restored much like Bruges or Toledo.

Not surprisingly, parts of Salvador may remind travelers of Lisbon, and although Krich is correct to give old Salvador such high marks, for its pastel colors in particular, I'd say that hilly Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais is just as splendid.

Because it has so many bars and restaurants and shops, the Pelourinho can scarcely be absorbed in only one or two visits. The area with its winding cobblestone alleys is safe enough if tourists don't wander afar, and my advice is to go there by taxi or else head for one of the parking garages.

The first place of interest that Tom and I came to is the Cravinho do Carlinhos, a small bar on Rua Gregório Matos. The street is named after an exceptional 17th century lyric poet. Erico Verissimo (father of the current best-selling novelist Luis Fernando Verissimo), has described Matos as "a true representative of the Brazilian soul, his mind being a territory where saudade and irreverence, wild joy and melancholy, dwelt together in a continuous shifting of planes."

The proprietor, Carlinhos, has a reputation as one of the more creative cravinho makers in the Pelourinho. This drink is made with cachaça (usually described as firewater or white rum) that has been aged in oak barrels along with various herbs and seasonings.

Of the several varieties on tap, I fondly recall the siren's song of the cravinho cravo, or little clove drink. We were later to have another cravinho at the shop of Preto Velho, literally the Old Black, a white-haired Afro-Brazilian who must be over 80 and is regarded as an irmão de santo, or brother saint of the Candomblé. The latter is an annual religious celebration, and somewhat unique as many of the Yoruba deities have been syncretized with Catholic saints.

Preto Velho is also one of those people well versed in folk remedies. Do these things really work? Years ago in Belo Horizonte, an elderly woman gave me a leafy and bitter green potion for indigestion (ailmentary, my dear Watson!) that was at least soothing. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't, but older Brazilians seem to know their medicinal herbs, and these formulas are passed down through the generations.

Caipirinha, the basic ingredients of which are cachaça and lime, is another alcoholic drink that some people would place at the top of their list. A close relative might be caipiroska, made with vodka, sugar, mashed lime, and crushed ice. `Roskas can also be made with other fruit—whatever's in season—in which case one may end up with a cajuroska or umburoska or others as tasty as they are exotic sounding.

A Romantic Vision

While in the Pelourinho, it is all but mandatory to visit the Fundação Casa de Jorge Amado, a sort of memorial and museum devoted to Bahia's—and Brazil's—most famous author. As Moritz Thomsen observed in his book, The Saddest Pleasure, "The town belongs to Jorge Amado, that romantic who has made truth out of a lying vision, who has superimposed over the squalor of an incredible poverty the soul of a new race."

Most of Amado's flamboyant novels have been translated into English, and these include Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Tent of Miracles, and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon.

Around the corner from Amado's place, as we ambled up Rua Alfredo do Brito, an alluring aroma led us to the Restaurante Pomerô, and after stepping inside we were led clear through the establishment to a large communal patio in back—the Largo Quincas Berro d'Água—which is shared by several other bars and restaurants (Habeas Copos, for example, adjoins Pomerô).

After dinner and drinks, and a conversation about the dying art of the elevator man, Tom and I left the plaza, or rather paused at the threshold in order to decide whether to turn left or right. It would be neither. Our decision was being made for us by a trio of young women with whom we were soon having drinks.

Amado writes about the mixture of the races in Bahia and the wondrous tones that result, and I didn't fail to remember his words in the pleasant company of three women who were all dark-skinned but each in possession of her own distinctive coloring, from dusky to midnight blue.

Of course, someone reading this may infer that these women had monetary motives (oh boy, a rich American), but I don't think so. Like us, they were just out to have fun, sip a cravinho or two, observe people and listen to percussion bands like Olodum, which can often he heard rehearsing for more formal show elsewhere.

Simple Pleasures

I'm not sure how this happened, considering my low tolerance for alcohol, but every morning in Salvador I'd wake up sober. Not one hangover. And on top of that, I'd be up early—the darkness began to dispel a little after 4:30 a.m.—and would either read for awhile or reflect on what I'd seen or done the previous day.

During the Bahian spring (our seasons and Brazil's are reversed), the mornings are sometimes overcast and sometimes dotted with great big white clouds. Always, though, there's a pervading warmth and a perpetual if faint trace of moisture in the air.

When it was raining, the air was still a bit stuffy and sultry. In other words, the temperature doesn't change much. It's the kind of weather I think of every time I listen to Ravel's "Habanera."

In Brazil, the currency exchange is about three reals to the dollar, which means that a lunch that costs $R 5 is fairly inexpensive. In Rio and São Paulo one won't make out quite so well, but Tom and I ended up in a kind of hole in the wall called K-trupia ("K" is "" or "come on over," and "trupia" is like a gang of friends). K-trupia is in the Nazaré neighborhood, scarcely half a mile from the Pelourinho, on Rua Engenheiro Silva Lima.

Our lunch here was simple—baked beef, rice, beans, spaghetti, salsa, farofa (ground manioc fried in butter) and green pepper sauce, plus beer—and yet wholly gratifying. We chatted with the owner, André Luis, who told us that during Carnaval time he and his "gang of friends" all go out en masse to celebrate. Anyone can join their group, and those who do will receive a matching shirt. He made it sound like fun, but I'm sure there are countless variations of this throughout the country. One big festive party.

I've already mentioned the old fort near Humaitá Point in the Monte Serrat district. There's a small red-and-white automated lighthouse on the point itself and close by at the Itapagipe Yacht Club an old, dilapidated restaurant. Tom and I were there on a gray and gloomy afternoon with scudding clouds, restless swells and a periodic drizzle, and yet it was such invigorating weather. We sat under a parasol for a couple of hours, drank Nova Schin, and discussed the sorry state of the world: "When the cat's away… the water will boil."

Then we hopped into Tom's car and drove two or three miles to the Basílica do Senhor do Bonfim, which is arguably one of the most famous churches in Salvador, and for that matter throughout Brazil. A number of religious events are associated with it. Inside you'll see the elaborate wedding cake altar typical of the country's baroque churches.

Inevitably someone will try to sell you a strand of colorful ribbons that say "Lembrança do Senhor do Bonfim da Bahia." Typically, you tie one to your left wrist and make three wishes. In time the ribbon will fray and fall off, but by then—or so the believers claim—your wishes will have come true.

(Mine did; I just moved into a 26-room mansion in Palos Verdes and married Miss September.) And if your wishes do come true, Tom says, you're supposed to return to the church and offer your heartfelt thanks in person (Hmm, guess I better renew my passport).

Now, This Is the Life

Between the basilica and the yacht club, although closer to the latter, is an area called Pedra Furada, named after the perforated rock at the shoreline. Above it there are a few quiet streets and maybe four or five not very well publicized restaurants.

One of them, on Rua Rio Negro, is called O Recanto de Lua Cheia, which implies that it's a cozy nook for enjoying the full moon, and several tables positioned on the edge of a balcony-patio overlook the Bay of All Saints—where Yemanjá, the goddess of the waters, likes to appear.

We drank beer and roskas and ordered appetizers, but the star of the show was a mariscada in a big clay pot. Marisco is shellfish, and so mariscada is an assortment of shellfish cooked with dendê, or palm oil, coconut milk, herbs and seasonings and pepper sauce.

The meal itself contained shrimp, clams, miniature oysters, river crabs, mussels, octopus, squid and red snapper. Because I'd never tried it, the cook also threw in some stingray. The ray was tender and easy to eat, but not memorable (sure, it tastes just like chicken). For each of us, the bill came to about $16.

If Salvador is pictured as a large peninsula, then on the other side of Monte Serrat, as one among a long string of coastal towns facing the Atlantic, is a placed called Praias do Flamengo. On a map, it's close to the airport and must have provided me with my first glimpse of the region. By car, this sparsely populated area may be about an hour from the old part of the city (or half that from Tom's in Pituba), and for most of the leisurely drive there's not much traffic.

About half a mile off the main two-lane highway we parked and walked over to a beachfront cabana called Baionês, which serves Bahian and Japanese cuisine. If you're thinking fish stew and tempura, you're right. Tom and I were ushered past a couple of open-air terraces and onto the white sand and almost down to the very shoreline.

We sat at a table with a large parasol to keep off the sun. The sand was as fine as silk, the sea was relatively warm, and the day itself was pleasant rather than scorching. We started out with a frutaroska, made with graviola.

Moritz Thomsen says of the people of Bahia that they move "at a pace that is decent and without that panic that makes Rio seem hysterical," a pace that Gilberto Freye in Order and Progress refers to as a "healthy inertia."

And that's indeed how this late spring afternoon seemed, with its relaxing sunbathers on both sides of us infused with a healthy inertia. The only energy we expended was to move the table and chairs back as the tide crept forward.

I've been to all kinds of operas and musicals and various other stage shows over the past few years, but it's hard to remember when I've had a better seat in the house and enjoyed "the show" quite as much. You have to treasure it while you can, and I treasured it.

A couple of days later, as my plane headed back to São Paulo, I was able to look down and see the same endless stretch of white sand. There's a part of me that's still sitting there with Tom, enjoying a couple of `roskas, skewers of roasted cheese, and a heaping platter of shrimp that we will eagerly devour, perhaps again and again.

So when you fly to Salvador, and you pass over the Praias do Flamengo, be sure to look for my umbrella—or for the umbrella on the sand that's waiting just for you.

My sincere thanks and deepest appreciation to Tom, Gilda and Nicole, to Tom senior and Dona Lita, to Eduardo Marx e Silva and Fatima Young at Varig Brazilian Airlines, and to Maria Helena Dunne at the Brazilian Tourism Office in Washington, D.C. If it wasn't for all of you, I might never have left my backyard.

Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and entertainment section of the Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the South Bay of southern California. He can be reached at bwyszpolski@earthlink.net.

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