Candomblé: resistance, preservation and recognition of Afro-Brazilian cuisine – In African-based religion eating is sacred and a way of dialoguing with ancestry

Acarajé, shrimp bobó and abará are some of the foods linked to the candomblé religion
Candomblé - resistência, preservação e reconhecimento da culinária afro-brasileira
Acarajé, shrimp bobó and abará are some of the foods linked to the candomblé religion

Note from BW of Brazil: “Brazilian culture couldn’t survive without our workforce, without our imagination, without that which identifies us so much. If we take away the black presence of Brazilian culture, Brazilian culture is over.” The words were spoken by singer/musician Ellen Oléria in an interview. And when one really takes a hard look at what makes Brazil Brazil, it would be difficult to dispute Oléria’s statement. Considering the facets Brazilian culture, things such as capoeira, samba, the very way that Brazilians speak Portuguese, and you realize that the African and his/her descendants are responsible for the view that many held in the previous century: Brazil was an extension of Africa in Latin America.

Also, as much as the religion has been demonized, the African religion of Candomblé must be included as yet another aspect of the African influenced that is buried deep down in soul of the nation. Then, when the topic turns to the Candomblé, this will lead to yet another important factor of Brazilian culture, one that everyone may not know is an important piece of the religion: the food. When I first started visiting Brazil at the turn of the new century, I had already read about dishes and delicacies such as feijoada, moqueca de peixe, acarajé and vatapá. Needless to say, when I embarked upon my first journey to Brazil, I couldn’t wait to experiment with the cuisine.

Moqueca de peixe, acarajé with vatapá and feijoada
Moqueca de peixe, acarajé with vatapá and feijoada

I wasn’t disappointed.

On that first trip to Salvador, Bahia, in 2000, I think I ate at least one acarajé everyday for the three weeks I was there. Been hooked ever since. Now to be sure, not all moquecas, acarajés and feijoadas are equal, but when you meet someone who really knows how to cook these dishes, all I can say is, make sure you’re sitting on an empty stomach when it’s time to eat! Also remember that, although followers of the Candomblé have faced repression, violence, intolerance and demonization from the time the first Africans brought the religious practice to Brazil, many dishes people have come to love have a direct connection to this African origin religion. As such, get over it. It’s better to appreciate than to hate. 

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Candomblé: resistance, preservation and recognition of Afro-Brazilian cuisine

The African-based religion understands the act of eating as sacred and a way of dialoguing with ancestry

By Mayara Paixão

Among the wealth of African heritage brought to Brazil, there is an Afro-Brazilian religious manifestation constructed from traditional African religions: candomblé.

During their ceremonies, the act of eating, like dancing, has a sacred meaning. It is through food that candomblé practitioners communicate and pay homage to the orixás, figures who represent the ancestors.

In the terreiros (temples), eating is synonymous with socialization, as explained by Makota Bayrangi, known as “Nega Duda”. “The food is offered to the public. It’s not only the people of the terreiro, but the entire community around them eats and also the people who go to candomblé festas. In the candomblé, food is a sharing.”

Nega Duda
Nega Duda (Photo: Roger Cip

The importance that food has in religion has made candomblé a tool for the preservation and recognition of Afro-Brazilian cuisine. Dishes such as acarajé, bobó de camarão (shrimp bobó) and abará, widespread in popular culture and present on the table of many Brazilians, have stood the test of time thanks to their preservation in the terreiros.

African identity

Anthropologist and babalorixá (priest of the Afro-Brazilian religion) Vilson Caetano explains that food, even in the days of slavery, in addition to being a link between Africans and their ancestry, was a way of fighting the slave system.

“When Africans arrived in Brazil, they had their identity and the idea of a community fragmented by slavery. They had their family and social group destroyed. When they arrived, they were forced to survive and rebuild it. In this process of identity reconstruction, food played a fundamental role,” he says.

About 3.6 million enslaved people were brought to Brazil between the 16th and 19th centuries, according to data collected by Emory University, in the United States. According to other sources, this total was closer to 5 million.

Caetano, who is also a professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), recalls that Africans had already arrived in Brazil with extensive knowledge of ingredients and techniques, such as preparing food in steam and flambé.

baiana de acarajé 2_thumb[3]
Baiana de acarajé (Bahian woman serving acarajé)

“When this African arrives in Brazil, he already knows other (ways of) cooking and cuisines. African groups already had contact with cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, apricot, the so-called ‘spices’”, describes the anthropologist.

The accumulated knowledge is mixed with the knowledge acquired in contact with indigenous populations and is used in kitchens, where the enslaved black labor was widely used. Amid this cultural exchange, Africans marked the process of constructing Brazilian food culture.

Preservation of culture

In addition to building the culinary history, candomblé plays an important role in preserving traditions related to food. In the terreiros, the recipes, the preparation methods and ingredients were protected from forgetfulness and prejudice.

“Some foods, which are present today in restaurants or on the streets of cities like Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, are foods that only managed to reach us and be preserved for two or three hundred years thanks to their relationship with religiosity,” says the babalorixá.

For Nega Duda, it’s also necessary to recognize the importance of candomblé against the cultural appropriation of Afro-Brazilian elements. As an example, she mentions the acarajé, called by some “bolinho de jesus”.

“Acarajé is not the bolinho de jesus (jesus fritter). The acarajé comes from ‘acará’, which means fireball; and ‘jé’ means to eat. It’s eating a fireball. This acarajé is from a religion of African origin. It has an owner. It belongs to (orixás) Iansã and Xangô, it belongs to the povo de santo (persons devoted to the orixás),” she defends.

According to the 2010 Demographic Census, the ‘religion of the orixás’ is practiced by around 600 thousand Brazilians, but the data is considered to be underreported by its practitioners.

According to  Disque 100 data obtained by the O Globo newspaper, in 2018 there were 213 complaints of intolerance to religions of African origin in the country. Faced with prejudice, candomblé remains present in everyday life as a form of resistance.

Source: Brasil de Fato

About Marques Travae 3439 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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