Abará is one of the foods that is most closely associated with the Afro-Brazilian religion of Bahia, Candomblé, and it's also one of the items that can always be found for sale by baianas, the traditionally-dressed black women who sell Bahian food, most notably acarajé, on streets, squares and beachfronts of Salvador.
In the rituals of Candomblé, which preserve the religious traditions brought from Africa to Brazil by slaves, abará is a favorite food of the orixá (divinity) Iansã, and offerings of food made to her invariably include abará. Iansã is the orixá of the River Niger in Africa, and of the wind, hurricanes and tempests. She is considered to be one of the most agressive of the female orixás and has dominion over the dead. In the syncretic tradition of linking orixás with saints of the Catholic church, she is identified with Santa Barbara and is worshiped as such in the Catholic churches of Bahia.
There's nothing complex or complicated about abará - it's not a fancy or delicate food. But it does combine many of the most important ingredients of the Bahian pantry, which was large inherited from Africa. Basically, an abará is a soft batter made from black-eyed pears, flavored with bright orange dendê palm oil and cooked by being steams in a banana-leaf package. Sometimes ground dried shrimps are added to the batter for additional flavoring, but this isn't obligatory. Readers familiar with Mexican tamales will have a very good idea of what an abará is, as the two dishes are very similar. They differ in the mass used to create the dough - ground corn in the case of tamales and ground black-eyed peas in the case of abará. Although tamales are often stuff with a meat or chicken filling, abarás are not and resemble most closely those unstuffed tamales called "blind."
The list of ingredients that go into making abará is almost identical to acarajé. Both are based on the same batter, though in acarajé the batter is deep-fried in dendê whereas abará is steamed rather than fried and a small amount of dendê is stirred into the batter to flavor it. This makes abará slightly more healthy eating than acarajé, though it could never be considered health food.
In Salvador we sampled abará at the famed Bahian buffet of SENAC, the public-private vocational school that can be found in any city in Brazil. In our next post, we'll look at the 40+ dish SENAC buffet in more detail. It's an edible encyclopedia of Bahian cuisine and an essential part of the Salvador experience.
(Click here for a recipe for abará from an earlier posting on Flavors of Brazil).