Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A National Treasure - Baianas Selling Acarajé

Many countries have a official list of national treasures, or a museum which displays the best of the nation's artistic and cultural heritage. The Tower of London houses England's crown jewels, in Paris, the Louvre houses paintings by Watteau, the Musée d'Orsay displays the works of Manet, Monet and Gauguin, and the Centre Pompidou showcases the best of 20th Century art. Brazil has a national institute called the Institute of National Historic and Artistic Patrimony (Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional), commonly known in Portuguese as IPHAN, which has been charged with selecting the best of Brazil's historic, cultural and artistic treasures. What is most interesting is that IPHAN has been charged not only with selecting paintings, buildings, palaces and churches, it has been charged with selecting those immaterial treasures that are central to the conception of Brazilian culture. This list of immaterial national treasures includes food and cooking, and though I am not sure if Brazil is the only country to so classify foods and preparation techniques, I'm sure it is one of a very few. It's as if the USA declared that Kansas City Barbeque or Cajun Jambalaya were national treasures, worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian Institute, or if Canada bestowed such an appellation on Quebec's poutine.

Currently there are 15 items registered by IPHAN as immaterial national treasures of Brazil. They include traditional dances, country fairs, methods of making lace, musical instruments, and childrens games. IPHAN chose in 2004 to add acarajé to this list, and significantly chose to add not only the food item itself, but also the historically significantly way that it is prepared and sold on the streets of Salvador, Bahia, by women known as baianas. In the certification of  "Acarajé as Sold by Baianas" as a national treasure, IPHAN included acarajé itself and the way it is prepared, the traditional clothing of the baianas, which is linked to the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, and the customary layout of accompaniments on the baianas' streetside tables, called tabuleiros.

Most Brazilians, including those from the state of Bahia and those who are not, would agree that acarajé well deserves its place in the Brazilian cultural pantheon. Few are the tourists who leave Salvador without having tasted this treat at least once, and fewer still are those whose sensory memory of that baroque city does not include the utterly distinctive aroma of acarajé frying in dendê oil and the spicy complex flavor of the offerings of the "baiana de acarajé."

Click on "read more" below for a translation of the official IPHAN certificate of acarajé as a national cultural treasure.

The Custom of Baianas Selling Acarajé - IPHAN Certificate

The Custom of Baianas Selling Acarajé, as it is practiced e in Salvador, Bahia, consists of the tradition of preparation and selling on streetside tables of foods known as "food of the baianas", the highlight of which is the acarajé, a fritter of black-eyed peas fried in dendê oil.

The tradition of frying acarajé in dendê was brought to Brazil from Africa by black slaves during the colonial period, and has continued to this day. For most of its history, the technique of making acarajé was transmitted orally from generation to generation. Acarajé was first sold commercially during colonial times by freed slaves and these sales became an important source of income for former slaves after abolition of slavery in 1886. Over the passage of time, this food, which has a sacred origin associated with the divinities of Candomblé, came to symbolize for all sectors of Bahian society the integration of traditional foods in Bahian culture.

Acarajé, along with its associated foods such as abará, acaçá, fato, bolinho de estudante, cocada, bolos and mingaus, is sold today by baianas in places associated with those corners where freed slaves sold these foods in times of slavery. Today, the social groups from which these baianas come are either religious (filhas de santo), or commercial.

The essential elements invovled in The Custom of Baianas Selling Acarajé are the production of acarajé, the arrangement of the selling table, and the preparation of the space for selling the acarajé; the ways of cooking the traditional dishes; the use of the traditional tabuleiro table to display the products; the informal commercialization on the street, at fairs and festivals; and the traditional costume of the baianas as a symbol of their social and religioius status, particularly their dorsal cloths, turbans and jewellry. 

The request for the certification of The Custom of Baianas Selling Acarajé as an immaterial national treasure was made by The Association of Baianas of Acarajé and Mingau of the State of Bahia, along with the Center of Afro-Oriental Studies of the Federal University of Bahia, and the Terreiro do Axé Opô Afonjá. The certification was inscribed in the National Book of Knowledge on December 10, 2004, as a result of the decision made at the 45th meeting of the Consultative Council for Cultural Patrimony on December 01, 2004.

(added 09Feb10) Thanks to one reader's comments concerning this post, I was led to his marvelous blog where I read a post about the historical links between Brazilian acarajé and a Nigerian fritter called "akara". Click here to read the post - and enjoy the marvelous photos too!


  1. Love this post....I've just written one talking about Akara (the name in Nigeria) and Acaraje and quoted you! Cheers, Oz

  2. I'm very pleased you enjoyed it. I'd love to read your post, and will search for it. Thanks also for providing the name in Nigeria!

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