Friday, November 5, 2010

A Tale of Two Dishes - Vatapá

"The glory of Bahian cuisine", "The most typical Bahian dish", "Bahia's definitive dish" - These are just a few of the many, many descriptions of the creamy, fragrant and evocative mixture of bread, coconut milk, peanuts or cashew nuts, dried shrimp and an almost-unlimited variety of other ingredients called vatapá. Firmly established as a central component in the Afro-Brazilian cuisine of the Brazilian state of Bahia, vatapá is today enjoyed throughout Brazil though everywhere it continues to be considered a Bahian dish.

Vatapá has long been celebrated as a culinary treasure in Bahia and an integral part of that states culture. In his novel "Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands" Brazilian author Jorge Amado extols the virtues of vatapá through the words of his cooking-school-teacher heroine Dona Flor speaking to her class, "Let's move to the stove: vatapá made of fish (or chicken) is a dish that requires both care and whimsy, the most most famous dish of Bahian cuisine. Take two whole heads of grouper, add salt, cilantro, garlic and onion, a few tomatoes plus some fresh lime juice..." and from there Amado continues to include an entire recipe for vatapá in his novel. The Bahian singer-songwriter Dorival Caymmi composed a paean to the dish titled, naturally, "Vatapá" which has become a Brazilian standard. They lyrics of his song include a list of essential ingredients for a successful  vatapá, including a Baiana (a black woman from Bahia) who "knows how to stir." Here's a video from YouTube of this marvelous song, as sung by Gal Costa:

The origins of vatapá are unknown, though all culinary historians agree that even if the basic concept came from Africa on board slave ships, it was developed in Bahia itself. The word come from Yoruba, an African language, where it means "a spicy seafood paste", yet the dish isn't part of contemporary African cooking. Most Bahian dishes that came fully developed from Africa are ritual foods in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, but vatapá has no part in the ceremonies of that religion.

The essential ingredients for vatapá, common to almost all recipes include stale bread, coconut milk, ground nuts and dried shrimp. And all recipes use one technique or another to create a thick sauce or paste. Beyond that, the variations are innumerable. However, over time two distinct, and distinctly different, dishes have developed, both called vatapá. One is the fairly thick homogenous paste that is an essential filling for the Bahian bean fritter called acarajé. The other is less homogenous, with chunks and pieces of the various ingredients in a thick sauce. It is served as a side dish in a Bahian meal, or as part of a Bahian buffet. Both are vatapá but they are quite different preparations. The next two posts on Flavors of Brazil will include recipes for both styles of vatapá.


  1. Thanks James, it's really fascinating to learn about the history of these fusions. I would never have guessed that there were links with Yoruba as well.

  2. Glad you found this interesting - the connections between Brazil are fascinating, I agree, and are alive and vibrant up to this day.