Searching for the Flavors of Bahia

A long green snake scurries across the sandy road as I ride in a dune buggy taxi from Caraiva and into Pataxó territory at Barra Velha. In the background hovers Monte Pascoal, the first piece of land seen by the explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral on his discovery of Brazil, which he then claimed for Portugal. The coastal landscape is wild and untamed: swampy lagoons, thick brush, and trees that have grown crooked from the wind. When we pull up to Barra Velha, a cluster of houses and shops built of concrete bricks, there’s an older woman peeling a type of palm fruit I’ve never seen. She tells me she’ll use it to dye her hair, but it also can be eaten.

Despite being the first indigenous group in Brazil to encounter the Portuguese, a relentless force that would wipe out and displace much of native population of Brazil over the next few centuries, the Pataxó have survived. Once nomadic and living in the forest, coming to the Atlantic coast to gather shellfish and for rituals, they have had native lands taken away and have lived through had forced periods of acculturation that have limited the existence of their culture. Yet, somehow, they have maintained fragments of the ancestral knowledge of the flora and fauna around them.

The Pataxó grow small amounts of cassava (yuca/manioc), which is used for many recipes and is grown in rotation with corn and beans. It is often turned into farofa, toasted manioc flour, which is often eaten with pork. For festivals, they make cahuin, also called jaroba here. It’s grated cassava, pushed through cloth and left to ferment for several days. Afterward, sugarcane juice is added, and it ferments several days more, until the alcohol percentage is high. They also collect resins, fibers, seeds, and fruits from the surrounding forests, as well as crustaceans, sea urchin, fish, and mollusks from the mangroves and coast.

I meet Tapurumã, who goes by Cayo, at Uxua in Trancoso, where he works to revive and modernize indigenous art in the hotel’s clever workshop. When I started asking about Pataxó culinary traditions he offered to show me around Barra Velha where his family still lives.

Much of the day revolves around the patioba (Syagrus botryophora), sometimes called the Pati Queen palm, a native palm that’s symbolic to the Pataxó. About a kilometer outside of town we wandered through the forest, climbing through the dense foliage dotted with countless species of palms, each of which have a purpose. Some they use for their edible fruits, while the fronds of others are used for making baskets or hammocks. The bark of the mawi palm, according to Cayo, can be removed and tossed into water where fish will eat it and become so intoxicated that they can just be picked up. When we finally find what we are looking for, a patioba sapling, we bring the fronds back to Cayo’s house.

The leaves of the patioba are used by the Pataxó to wrap anything, such as fish for peixe na folha de patioba, a common dish that simply means fish in a patioba leaf, which can be cooked over charcoal. It’s similar to a patarashca in the Western Amazon, though the patioba has a natural, fragrant oil in its leaves that gives it a signature flavor.

For the dish Cayo starts a simple charcoal fire and places a whole fish within, slicing it into three pieces that have been marinated in achiote, onion, and cilantro from his family’s small garden. The thick, stiff patioba fronds need to be tied to stay closed and are then grilled for approximately 20 minutes on a grate a few inches over charcoal until they charred. Cayo’s mother serves it with boiled yuca and farofa. The flavors of the achiote and the wonderful strangeness of the patioba oil create a flavor unique to this landscape. This is Bahia too.

Peixe na folha de patioba, a traditional Pataxó dish.
Pataxó territory in southern Bahia.
Kouba (Cereus repandus), a cactus fruit growing in southern Bahia.
Pataxó artisan Tapurumã, who goes by Cayo, in the dry forest near his village.

I can smell the dendê oil as it wafts on Trancoso’s quadrado from a cart selling acarajé, the mashed black-eyed pea fritters that are a common Bahian street food. The acarajé are fried and filled with shrimp, tomatoes, and peanut sauce. Dendê, a highly saturated, bright red-orange oil high in carotenes (alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and lycophene), is derived from the fleshy pulp of the dendê palm. It’s a flavoring agent with a nutty taste and is used as a cooking fat, where it’s most often mixed with coconut milk and spicy malagueta peppers, as well as cilantro. When combined, they create the essential flavor of Bahia. Enhancing one another, they appear together in numerous regional dishes like moquecas, bobó de camarão, and vatapá, among others.

I wait on a stool as the acarajé are fried in a large metal pot filled with dendê oil. Elma, the women who has been making these fritters here for years, also has a neighboring cart selling tapioca, a crepe made from tapioca flour, and filled with sweet or savory fillings. The acarajé is still hot when she hands it to me, topped with bits of celery. The grease from the dende and the sauce soaks through the napkin that surrounds it. It’s messy, almost too hot to bite, and spicy. There’s a slight crunch on the outside of the fritter, but the interior is soft and moist.

As I eat I see a solitary dog walking in a zigzag pattern down the street, checking out every leaf he passes. It’s so quiet you can hear his paw nails click on the pavement. Everyone’s at the beach, down a centuries old dirt path, long used by fishermen through the tropical forest and mangroves. The quadrado is silent, but every once in a while I’ll hear a thump from fruit falling off a tree. They are full of them. Jackfruit, jambo rosa (rose apple), caju (cashew), jabuticaba, copoazu, and many others. In the gardens behind the wall of houses even more things grow, flavoring each kitchen. Uxua, which turned some of the idyllic fishing shacks on the quadrado into one of South America’s most atmospheric hotels, famously didn’t uproot a single tree when opening. They had to build right around an açaí palm in one case and cacao pods grow right beside the guest rooms. You can pick them off and eat the pulp while you sit by the pool.

The shops and restaurants open when the sun begins to set. The strange mish mash of people – the fishermen, the hippies that came in the 70s, the tourists, and wealthy Brazilians from São Paulo and Rio – come out from their houses and hotels hidden within the tropical forests that line the coast and eat and drink.

“The moon pushes you out of your house,” says Bob Shevlin, who, along with Dutch fashion designer Wilbert Das, founded Uxua.

Like many Bahian beach towns, Trancoso’s dining options are varied. A macrobiotic café was the first to appear here 30 years ago, but now there’s Italian and vegan, and gourmet burgers and Peruvian. Still, the best food here is driven by the flavors found in the forest and in the ocean. Restaurants like Donna Janete’s Vitoria serve classic Bahian dishes like casquinha de siri (stuffed crab shells), escondidinho de carne seca (salt cured meat and yuca), and two-person moquecas. Others like Uxua’s restaurant and Capim Santo, play with the regional flavors, mixing them into cocktails and contemporary dishes.

Tables are set out in the grass and, above them, lights, strung through the branches, twinkle like fireflies. The moonlight meanders its way through the leaves of the mango and tamarind trees, peaking through the windows of the centuries old houses that line its edges.

Jambo rosa, or rose apple.
A shovelnose guitarfish at the Porto Seuguro fish market.
Moqueca Baiana.
Acarajé frying in dendê oil in Trancoso.
A drift net haul from an artisanal fishing boat.
Carving the days catch at the Trancoso fish and farm market.

The starry sky turns silver as the dawn approaches on the southern coast of Bahia. A fisherman on the shore, right where the members of the village’s small fishing co-op gather each day, whistles to a blue, wooden boat anchored approximately 100 meters from shore. After about twenty minutes of silence, just as he starts to swim out, there’s movement on the boat. The engine sputters on and it turns toward shore, picking up its captain and myself. We head a few kilometers out into the Atlantic as the sun just peaks through the clouds, where they will pull up their drift net, strung out across a large swath of sea, hanging vertically from floats attached to a rope.

There is limited commercial fishing activity in this part of Bahia, though artisanal fishing continues to be a means to eek together a living for many along the coast. Today, many of the fishermen have a dual lifestyle where they also have small farms inland. Uxua helped launch Trancoso’s fishing co-op in an attempt to get them organized and adapt to the changing economics of the village. They sell their catch to restaurants, or at the Saturday farm and fish market. Some of the catch gets pushed up to the quadrado by wheelbarrow or carried on strings.

Further north in Porto Seguro, where a commercial fishing fleet can be found, many shrimp, crab and other fish populations have been declining because of poor resource management. At the city’s bustling fish market, shrimp are piled high along counters, arranged by size. Some of it is camarão seco, dried, and will get re-hydrated in stews or ground in a powder to thicken sauces. Sometimes a shovelnose guitarfish (Rhinobatos productus), often by-catch from shrimp trawlers that is making it increasingly rare, will be laid out beside them. There are octopus and flying fish, red snapper and tuna. For now, the seas here are still rich.

Seafood is present in many traditional Bahian recipes, which tend to have a heavy Afro-Brazilian influence, especially the closer you get to Salvador. The state’s most emblematic dish, moqueca Baiana, is a thick seafood stew made with coconut milk and served with rice. Shrimp, in particular, shows up often: grilled on skewers, in a creamy shrimp and manioc chowder called bobó de camarão, puréed with palm oil and nuts for vatapá, or cooked with okra for carurú de camarão, a sort of Brazilian gumbo. These dishes are cooked for long periods of time and over low heat, becoming thick and soulful, and are often served in clay pots.

On the boat, a small, spotted eagle ray is one of the first creatures pulled up, followed by a small assortment of other species, some of them with bites taken out of them. It’s a light haul, almost nothing. Normally the nets would stay longer, and while the seas seem calm, they know a storm is coming. They can see it in the waves. They can taste it in the air. They move the nets closer to shore where they will be safe, not far from where a mineral red river empties into the Atlantic. The boat makes its way back to the where it was anchored in the morning as the waves begin to grow. Once we’re on shore, it begins to rain.