To put it lightly, food from Salvador de Bahia is hard to come by in America. Bahians see and smell it on every street corner in their home city. Yet, I foraged the internet for hours, looking for businesses and restaurants serving food from the Northeast state of Brazil. By chance, I stumbled upon a treasure and within minutes I was on the phone with founder and chef, Renni Flores.
Acarajé is palpable, an assortment of flavors and textures I had never experienced before. The iconic dish was an instant hit at the 2009 Brazilian Day festival in Los Angeles and the success led her to establish a full-blown catering company, Sabor de Bahia.
A black-eyed pea fritter shaped in a ball is deep fried in dendê (palm oil), then Renni splits it open and spreads vatapá, a breadcrumb, dry shrimp, peanuts, coconut milk puree. The dried shrimp with the shell, an African delicacy, are cooked, chopped up and stuffed between the layers of pure golden deliciousness. Tomatoes and sometimes bits of lettuce and cilantro are sprinkled on top of what looks like a crispy round sandwich. As I took my initial bites I was a bit unsure how to make out this dish, having nothing to compare it to. Upon letting the flavors marinate in my mouth for a few seconds, the shrimp and fritter, and the soft butter-like texture of the vatapá form a delight. After about 8 bites, I finished the acarajé, anxiously excited to have the next one in my hands. I knew I didn’t have to wait long, Renni had the ingredients on the stove ready to go.
“I feel like there is going to be a bad influence in your stomach if I am mad while I’m cooking,” she says, sauteing the baby shrimp. To make sure she’s in the best possible mood while she cooks — she sings. She closes her eyes and loses herself for a moment as she sings along to one of her band’s Afro-Brazilian songs.
Chef Renni was born in Salvador de Bahia. When her mother unexpectedly passed, she sang everywhere to afford funeral costs. She eventually ended up in the United States starring in a broadway Brazilian show, Oba Oba and settled in Los Angeles, a coastal and tropical hometown, reminiscent of her home in Brazil. She is a part of the West L.A neighborhood, a colorful and tight knit community of Brazilians tucked between palm trees and strip malls on Venice Blvd.
“As a Black woman and cooking Afro-Brazilian food, one is the pot and the other is the lid.” Her identity is inextricably linked to West African heritage and the cultivation of agriculture and cuisine. She represents the Baianas, Afro-Brazillian women selling acarajé, wearing white cotton gowns, hair wraps with colorful necklaces. Baianas and the food they serve are imperative to understanding Bahia’s distinctly unique and dark history. When the Portuguese arrived on the shores of Salvador in 1500, discovering the vast agriculture that would soon make them rich, they enslaved indigenous people and then extended their slave labor from Africa. Brazil was the largest Trans-Atlantic slave port in history, receiving 5.5 million Africans over the span of 300 years. The Portuguese couldn’t erase Africans and indigenous people’s knowledge and concept of home-cooked food, so they naturally imported and retained their cooking techniques, methods and ingredients. The founding ingredients, dry shrimp and black eyed peas were brought over from West Africa. Vatapá, the “filling” was originated by Indigenous communities.
Acarajé was born out of deep bonds with African ancestors and you can taste it in every bite.
I found solace, generosity and the utmost kindness sitting in her home (after my temperature was taken and socially distanced), trying the quintessentially home-cooked food. She pulled out old cookbooks from Bahia; picture frames of her friends and family, even uniquely handmade masks she’s been selling for the last few months.
Although Sabor de Bahia has been hardest hit by the pandemic, she continues to stay optimistic and creative. You can find her strolling down Venice Blvd picking out the freshest produce and items at the Supermercado. We’re all patiently waiting for festivals to come back so we can witness Renni sing to her long lines of hungry customers.
Sabor de Bahia | Located in Palms/Culver City, West Los Angeles, CA. | $ | Follow @sabordebahia on Instagram. | http://sabordabahia.com/. Recommended dishes: Acarajé.
To hear about the restaurant owners and chefs, tune into Episode Two of Eating America with India, where she explores the Brazilian diaspora in Newark, NJ and Los Angeles through regional food. She discusses issues of immigration, slavery, and globalization while highlighting the history of Brazil and the cuisine. 72,000 restaurants have closed in the midst of the pandemic, only adding more urgency in supporting these immigrant and Black owned small-businesses, which add to the richness of American multiculturalism. Eating America with India is hosted by India Witkin is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Itunes, Podcast Addict, Overcast and Buzzsprout.
India Witkin is a New York native, born to an Indian mother and Dutch/Italian father. She is a documentary filmmaker, singer and the podcast creator and host of Eating America with India.