Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 5 - Dona Mariquita's Moqueca do índio

Among the numerous "endangered" dishes to be found on the menu at Restaurante Dona Mariquita in Salvador, Bahia, is an intriguing appetizer called Moqueca do índio (Indian Moqueca). (Click here to read more about endangered dishes) The dish is described on the menu as "Pititinga roasted in banana leaf with toasted manioc crisps", but there's much more to the story of the dish than that.

Pititingas are very small silver fish found throughout northeastern Brazil - small enough that they fit in the palm of your hand. In this dish they are combined with spices and hot chili peppers, lots of them, wrapped in fresh banana leaves, roasted over coals in a tin-can oven and served with small crispy manioc crackers as an appetizer. The dish is very spicy, smoky and with a pronounced but not overwhelming fishy flavor that is balanced by the blandness of the manioc crackers. At Dona Mariquita, the moqueca is served with the fish still in its banana leaf, surrounded by crisps. Diners simply place a couple of fish on a crisp and pop the whole thing in their mouth.

According to the restaurant's website, moqueca do índio was once common in Salvador where it was one of the traditional staple dishes of the baianas who have sold acarajé on the streets of the city since time immemorial. Today the dish has completely disappeared from Salvador, except at Dona Mariquita. In the rural districts of Bahia that surround the Bay of All Saints, from which Bahia gets its name, traditional foodways have survived longer than they have in the capital,however, and it was in those districts that Dona Mariquita's owners rescued the recipe and returned it to Salvador, where it once had been so popular.

According to the bible of Brazilian historic gastronomy, História da Alimentação no Brasil, by Luís da Câmara Cascudo, moquecas (roasted or stewed fish and seafood) were eaten by indigenous tribes in Brazil long before the arrival of Europeans in the middle of the second millennium, and can lay claim to be among the most ancient dishes of Brazilian gastronomy. Thanks to the effort of Dona Mariquita you can still eat this most primitive, and most delicious, dish at her eponymous restaurant. It behooves the diner to consider the immense age of this recipe and to hope that although Moqueca do índio may be endangered, it will not become extinct.


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