In my opinion, this is the best street-food that Brazil can offer. I still remember when I went many years ago to sunny Salvador in Bahia state and bought them straight from the very friendly Baianas of Acarajé: the gorgeous cooks who make these fritters in a street cart. Baianas are very easy to spot in the streets of Salvador as they are dressed in long white dresses with a wide skirt made with layers of lace. On the head they wear a white turban and with the clothes lots of colourful bangles and necklaces. This costume dress has African influence and is related to the Afro-Brazilian religion called Candomblé. The dishes of the state of Bahia are the most famous in our country and many traditional foods like bobó, moqueca and vatapá essentially have red palm oil (dendê), chilli, coconut milk, coriander and seafood. These dishes are offered to gods during sacred rituals of Candomblé.
When baianas are dressed in colourful clothes they are called Baianas of Tourism. In Rio’s carnival parade every samba school has a special wing dedicated to Baianas and they wear the same dress and turban but made with shiny colourful fabric and lots of sparkly beads. Carmen Miranda, the late Brazilian star who is known for her tutti-frutti hat and flamboyant style got inspiration from baianas to create her style. She became a Hollywood star singing and dancing songs about Brazil in the Hollywood musicals of the 40s. Both the typical baiana’s dress and acarajé are very important to Brazil’s culture and are heritage-listed.
Acarajé is often filled with dried or fried prawns, vatapá and chilli sauce. Because they are a bit plump, the first bite can be difficult, but the pleasure I had, I can’t even describe. When they are preparing them for you, baianas actually ask if you want them hot or ‘cold’. By ‘cold’ they actually mean less chillies. Well, if one day you go to Salvador and you are not too keen on chillies, just say you want them frio, which means cold in Portuguese! I personally like them hot, very hot, with lots of chilli sauce, to me the more, the better. Well, regardless what your preference is, here is the recipe that you can replicate and have a little bit of pure Bahia’s taste at home!
The only issue here, I must say, is that it is really time consuming to prepare acarajé. This is because after the black-eyed peas are soaked overnight you will need to peel off the peas and it feels like an endless task. Baianas of Acarajé spend hours and hours peeling the peas to sell acarajé in the street. Unless you buy the machine that peels them for you, which is probably not the case, to make your acarajé pick a day when you are patient enough to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. In Bahia it is possible to find peeled black-eyed peas, but since we are not in Bahia… It is worth it, I promise.
Acarajé can be served on its own or with a good quality hot chilli sauce on the side, but it is much better when eaten like a little sandwich with the combination of these fillings: prawns, chilli sauce and vatapá. Vatapá’s recipe can be made a couple of days earlier and kept in an airtight container in the fridge, which helps a little. I strongly recommend you eat it warm.
Like our singer Gilberto Gil said, I want to go back to Bahia…, better, I want to go back to Bahia to have acarajé!!
The following pictures show how you prepare the fritters.
Soak the peas overnight, rub the peas vigorously between your hands:
Stir and let the skins float, remove skins with a slotted spoon:
Want to know how baianas look like? Click here.
If you are interested in visiting Salvador the capital of Bahia, check this article from Lonely Planet.
Enjoy a song by Gilberto Gil, the talented Brazilian singer from Bahia on Spotify: Gilberto Gil – Toda Menina Baiana
This a photo of me in the historic centre of Salvador back in 1998 (many years ago!!! I did not have a digital camera back then, so excuse the quality of the image).
½ kg black-eyed peas
2 large onions
Salt and pepper to taste
Red palm oil* (dendê), for deep-frying
1/2 qty Vatapá, to serve
Good quality store-bought hot chilli sauce, to serve
Cooked prawns, peeled and deveined, to serve
Coriander leaves, to serve
You have to start this recipe one day ahead
*Available from selected South American grocers or online
1. Place the peas in a large container, cover with water and refrigerate overnight. Drain. It is better to work in batches. Place 1/4 of the peas into a large bowl with plenty of water and place bowl into a clean sink. Vigorously rub some peas between the palms of your hands to remove the skins. Using a slotted spoon stir the peas and remove the skins as they float on the water. Discard skins and keep repeating this process until most of the peas are peeled. Add more water into the bowl, if necessary. Drain and transfer peeled peas into the bowl of a food processor. Repeat this process for the other batches.
2. In a food processor, grind the peas with onions, salt and pepper to a very smooth paste. Transfer the mixture to a bowl.
3. Pre-heat the oven 120°C and line a tray with paper towel. In a deep-fryer or medium saucepan heat the oil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and using a couple of large serving spoons, shape the acarajé and carefully dip it into the oil and fry for 6-8 minutes or until golden, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Keep turning them every couple of minutes. The patties should not be fried too quickly otherwise they will be raw in the centre. Drain them on prepared tray. While you are frying pop the batches in the oven to keep them warm.
4. Re-heat vatapá in the microwave for a couple of minutes before serving. Slice the acarajé open and fill it with a little bit of vatapá, prawns, coriander and chilli sauce.
Makes: 20 small fritters