Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Acaçá - Candomblé's Most Important Ritual Food

Take a look at the photo above, one of a series of photographs which we've been publishing the last few days highlighting the intimate connection between the ritual foods of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé and the traditional cuisine of Bahia, Brazil. You might notice that every one of the ritual dishes in the photograph is topped with a elongated-pyramid-shaped mass of pure white. This is acaçá (prounounced a-ka-SA), the most important of all ritual foods, and the only one whose presence is obligatory at all Candomblé rituals.

For all its importance, acaçá is a very simple preparation. It is simply a thick mush made from grated or ground white corn wrapped and shaped in banana leaves. By itself it has little flavor, although it picks up the flavor of whatever dish it accompanies.

So why is this one food so important in Candomblé? We thought it might be best to let a practitioner of Candomblé explain. The following is our translation of a post about acaçá from the Portuguese-language blog A Tradicional Religião Africana (Traditional African Religion):

The basic definition of acaçá is a mush of grated or ground white corn wrapped, while still hot, in a banana leaf. There is nothing wrong with this definition, but it is extremely superficial because acaçá is by far the most important food of Candomblé. Its preparation is itself a form or ritual or offering, involving rigorous precepts and regulations which may not be disregarded.

All of the orixás [the gods and goddesses of Candomblé], from Exu to Oxalá, are offered acaçá. All the ceremonies from the most simple ebó to the sacrifice of an animal include acaçá. Ritual initiations, funeral rites and anything else that happens in a house of Candomblé only happens in the presence of acaçá. Life and death in Candomblé proceed from this fundamental offering, without which no one is saved from the troubles and disappointments of destiny. When we look back at the history of the orixás, we can see the great evil of a human race distanced from divine power, represented in this case by the powerful Orun, the dwelling place of all humanity, and by the Great Lord of Human Destiny, Olodumaré.

There is only one offering capable of reconstituting axé [the vital force of life] and creating peace and prosperity on Earth, and that is acaçá. But what makes this seemingly simple food the most powerful offering to the orixás? Who can tell us what an acaçá really is?To understand this question, let's make a list of the component elements of acaçá. First, it's important to make clear that the paste of white corn soaked for several days and then pounded in a mortar and pestle is in fact called eco. A portion of this eco, still hot, is wrapped in a banana leaf to harden and take shape and only then does the name acaçá apply. (Today it is possible to buy pre-ground white corn flour, but traditional priests often still use the old method of mortar and pestle to make eco.)

So one can see the fundamental importance of the banana leaf, for it is only when the eco is wrapped in a green leaf that acaçá is created as a separate existance...and thus as a body, a symbol of a being. The only offering that reconstitutes and redistributes axé. It's imperative to remember that what give acaçá a separate existance, what gives it a body, is the banana leaf, the powerful green wrapping which confers individuality and life force to the acaçá.

Only water is as important as acaçá, and both are indispensible elements of all rituals and ceremonies. Both are symbols of life and it is precisely to keep man on the path of life, to avoid human sacrifice, that both are offered to the orixás. Acaçá offers up the most important meaning of life: life itself. And as the great peacemaker which keeps death, sickness, and everything else that plagues humanity at bay, it naturally becomes the favorite food, and favorite offering, of all the gods.

It's a fact that if one cannot properly prepare acaçá, one is not a good practitioner of Candomblé, since the rules and regulations of religion are never a matter of intuition. The fundamental elements of any religion have become codified and crystalized over centuries of tradition. It's worth teaching sceptics that Candomblé is not intuition, that Candomblé can be learned. What can be learned is the shared secret, those details that make all the difference, and which are proof that no one can fool the orixás.

Acaçá  must remain wrapped in its leaf, immaculate, until the moment it is delivered to the gods. Only at that moment may it be taken out of its wrapping. It's as if what is sacred must remain hidden until an offering is made, since what is hidden is almost always a consecrated element. And the secret of acaçá wrapped in its banana leaf is what maintains a temple of Candomblé, what keeps it holy. Acaçá without its banana leaf simply doesn't have ritual meaning, it doesn't exist. Nonetheless, imprudence reigns in many Candomblé temples, and its not uncommon today to hear of other foodstuffs being offered as acaçá. The most common are called acaçá balls and acaçá loaf. The balls are made by forming balls on the marble sideboards of a kitchen sink and letting them cool there, and the latter involves pressing the white corn paste into a loaf pan, letting it cool, and then cutting it into cubes. These alternative preparations are not true acaçá, and those who offer such acaçá are doomed to failure and cannot be considered persons possessing axé.

There is no Candomblé without acaçá and no acaçá without banana leaves. The religion of the orixás does not allow modification of its essence and this food is essential in the true meaning of the word. First comes acaçá, and only then comes life. The banana leaf protects life wrapped up inside it. Leaving acaçá unwrapped is like leaving life insecure, vulnerable. This is the most fundamental thing of all.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful... I love your blog. I saw a concert of Bebel Gilberto recently. I had many Brazilian friends and was so lonely for them, or, as they more perfectly express in Portuguese, saudade. I also like that the green bean is not even called a bean and has its own separate word. So many times when I was young my parents would say "We're having beans!" and I would envision luscious white beans stewed in olive, salt, and black pepper with spinach. Instead, what I would get would be green beans- my least favorite vegetable, the stringiest of string beans, bland, hard and barely cooked. Anyway!

    I am on a Brazilian kick.. Brazilian music has been playing in my house nonstop, I'm ordering Jorge Amado novels from the library like hotcakes, and now here comes your blog. I live in Chicago but, lo and behold, there is a shop in Chicago selling dende oil and Brazilian hot peppers! How lovely it would be to have some Bahian food with my Bahian novels... and now here come your recipes and cultural explanations! Thank you... reminds me of the beautiful people I miss so much and the beautiful country I hope to visit some day. Muito obrigado meu amigo gostoso!