Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Abará - Bahia's Version of a Pamonha/Tamal

In yesterday's post on Flavors of Brazil, while discussing how important the black-eyed pea (feijão-fradinho) has always been in traditional Brazilian gastronomy, I mentioned that it was particularly associated with the regional cuisine of the state of Bahia, the center of Brazil's Afro-Brazilian culture. Salvador, the capital of Bahia, was the capital of all of Brazil during earlier colonial times, and was the center of a vast area of sugar-cane cultivation. The agriculture of sugar cane requires a tremendous amount of human labor, a need which was met with the transportation of millions of Africans to work in the fields as slaves. Among the things that arrived in Brazil in their meager belongings must have been some black-eyed peas, which were planted and which thrived in Bahia.

In addition to eating these legumes cooked but whole, the black cooks of Bahia learned to de-skin black-eyed peas, mash them, and use the mashed beans to create a number of dishes, some of which have become iconic dishes of Afro-Brazilian cuisine. The most famous, without a doubt, is acarajé, a fritter made of frying mashed black-eyed peas in dendê palm oil. (Click here to read about acarajé on Flavors of Brazil.) Another dish made with the same mashed beans is called abará, and it's related both to Mexico's tamales, and to the Brazilian cornmeal dish pamonha.  What all three dishes have in common is that they share the common technique of wrapping a moist paste in banana leaves, and then steaming them. This technique is common throughout Latin American, and these are not the only examples. But it does show how a shared method of cooking is modified and adapted to local conditions - in the case of abará, by substituting mashed black-eyed peas for cornmeal.

Like acarajé, abará is not just a well-loved traditional dish. It is also intensely associated with the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, and in that religious tradition it is one of the ritual foods offered to the gods and goddesses of Candomblé, the Orixás, during ceremonial occasions.


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