The transatlantic connection between Akara and Acarajé, bean fritters from Nigeria and Brazil respectively, is unmistakable. I wrote about this connection in 2014, noting the research of Nigerian food scholar Ozoz Sokoh at the time. I was really excited to see a short film on this topic by Sokoh, where she cooks both of these dishes. Seeing each being made really visually illustrates the unmistakable connection between these two Transatlantic dishes.
When we heard that there was a new African restaurant in NYC with a chef from Mauritania, our ears perked up. The restaurant is the brainchild of chef Diana Tandia, who is originally from Mauritania, but has worked in upscale restaurants around NYC for decades. She decided that it was time to strike out on her own, so she opened Berber Street Food (35 Carmine St, New York, NY 10014). The menu is a mosaic of different African and African Diaspora cuisines, along with some interesting fusions.
Berber Street food is a tiny – and we mean tiny – restaurants with 15 seats. This counter-service is not a place for groups, or to linger over a leisurely lunch (though when we were there, the couple occupying the table in the window was having a simultaneous birthday party and photo shoot, so who knows). When we entered around lunchtime, the place was packed, and we were happy to see that they were doing a brisk takeout trade. Many of the lunch orders were buying Afro-Fusion express bowls ($10), which were various combinations of grains, greens and proteins, including tofu curry, Berber-spiced meat and Jamaican jerk chicken.
For starters, called “street food bites,” there are Senegalese empanadas (vegetable or beef curry $3 each), Kofta meatballs with Berber spices ($8), or a Suya Nigerian beef brochette ($8), along with Jamaican jerk chicken wings ($7.5o). All of Africa and the diaspora seemed to be covered.We were excited to see akara, a black-eyed pea fritter that is the Nigerian descendants of Brazilian acarajé with tomato and onion sauce ($7), so we knew we had to order it. Though smaller in size to acarajé, they tasted pretty similar and were delicious. M topped his with some spicy kani, west African hot sauce made of habanero peppers (which were also placed decoratively in basket at each table).
The mains were a little more pricey, and covered the greats hits of the region, including Djolof Fried Rice (which is claimed by many West African countries – $17) rice cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with either chicken or tempeh and Moroccan vegetable tajine, served served in an actual tajine ($18). We had the Berber Feast ($24) which consisted of roast lamb, squash and couscous, the most Mauritanian item on the menu. The lamb was fall of the bone tender and not gamey at all (sometimes a problem with lamb), and we enjoyed the accompaniments and sauces, though we felt the price was a little steep for the portions. We washed down our dinner with Berber iced mint tea ($3) and ginger lemongrass drink ($5) – we also discovered that these two mixed together made an amazing riff on the Arnold Palmer.
The attention to detail in Berber Street Food restaurant is amazing. It is basically a one-woman show, with Diana cooking, taking orders and delivering food (though it did appear she had a sous chef helping her back in the kitchen). We enjoyed talking with Diana, who connected with us over having spent some time in Brazil. If we lived in the area we could definitely see ourselves having lunch here pretty often. We wish Berber Street Food nothing but success!
This post is particularly appropriate for the world cup since it connects host country Brazil with one of the countries playing a game today, Ghana. One of the most emblematic foods in Brazil, especially in the Northeast of the country, is acarajé, which we have written about extensively for this blog. However its roots are in Africa, and brought and adapted by enlaved Africans brought from West Africa to Brazil. Both Nigeria and Ghana have a dish called acara/akara, which is very similar to acarajé, and all variants are fritters made from black eyed peas. Betumi blog and Kitchen Butterfly have recipes for akara, which definitely seem similar to acarajé. However, akara is typically eating for a snack or breakfast, while acarajé is more of a later-in-the-day snack. Another difference is that, in Nigeria, the akara fritters may be fried in vegetable oil, while in Brazil it is always the bright-red palm oil – our favorite!We love acarajé, so we assume we would be fond of its predecessors as well.
Acarajé with dried shrimp from Cida in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
July 2nd (Dois de Julho) is celebrated as Independence Day in Salvador da Bahia, and was considered the definitive end of Portuguese rule in 1823, so it’s the perfect day to celebrate Bahian food! Bahia has great street food, and you can find wonderful Acarajé on nearly any corner, so what could be better than an Acarajé stand surrounded by tons of other great eats? On Friday evenings during the summer (December – April in the southern hemisphere) there is a great street market put on by the Instituto Mauá in the neighborhood of Porto da Barra in Salvador called “Delícias do Porto (Delicacies of the Port)” Though the summer is now over in Brazil, it appears to be a yearly event, so check back for further updates. We highly recommended this fair for its variety, and for bringing a little culinary nightlife to the Porto da Barra area, which can feel empty during the evening hours.
You can recognize the market by its characteristic yellow booths, which seem to pop up out of nowhere on Fridays. In addition to food, there are also artisans selling traditional crafts as well as jewelry, clothes and other items. However, of course for us, the draw was the food! There was all sorts of Bahian food for sale: street favorites like Beijus, Abará, Queijo coalho, Acarajé – and even some things less commonly found in street stalls – Sarapatel, Bolo de Aipim and Xinxim. In between all of the stalls is a large, open seating area, so eating your food at a leisurely pace is encouraged.
The Xinxim (whick we had before, but in reference to a VERY different dish) was made of ground nuts, dendê (palm) oil, coconut milk, okra and shrimp. Though perhaps not the most visually appealing dish, we loved the unusual combination of savory flavors. Don’t forget to add the hot sauce and dried shrimp!
Of course no outdoor market in Bahia would be complete without Acarajé – the trusty black-eyed pea fritter that is pure “Bahia.” This one was from Dona Emilia (whose booth is there even when the whole fair is not), and was cooked fresh to order. Everything at the fair was very reasonably priced, and we couldn’t think of a better way to spend a balmy evening – watching the sunset and washing down our Acarajé with some Guaraná soda in hand.
Acarajé, a bean fritter fried in palm oil and filled with various toppings is one of the iconic foods of Brazil. We were spoiled for choice by the cheap and plentiful acarajé options in Bahia, where acarajé is most commonly found, (a complete Salvador acarajé post is coming soon). However, we are happy to report we found a great and centrally located acarajé spot in Rio de Janerio as well. Right in the bustling Largo do Carioca in Centro, Cida Acarajé sets up shop every weekday at around 12:30. It’s a pretty big production, so we are always impressed that it seems to pop up out of nowhere every day at lunchtime.
Cida Acaraje in Largo do Carioca
An acarajé at Cida costs R$ 9 without dried shrimp, which is highway robbery by Bahian standards, but is largely in keeping with Rio’s generally inflated prices. However, this was actually some pretty good acarajé, so we were prepared to shell out a little extra money for one of our favorite Bahian treats. The acarajé are made fresh to order in a giant vat of dendê (palm oil) – which is absolutely imperative to a good acarajé experience. As far as places in Rio go, we definitely preferred Cida’s acarajé to the one we had previously sampled at the Feira Hippie in Ipanema (another high profile location).
Acaraje Frying up in Dende Oil
The acarajé was perfectly fresh and we enjoyed the good renditions of the traditional acarajé fillings: vatapá, caruru and salada. M also appreciated the spicy sauce with a nice kick. If you are going for the full authentic experience you must also top the acarajé with dried shrimp (though we are on the fence if we actually prefer this). In addition to acarajé, there were various chocolate and coconut cakes by the slice, cocadas and even small puddings baked right in a coconut shell. This was our friend M’s first venture into acarajé and we are happy to report that she heartily enjoyed it. Another Brazilian food convert won over!
With our quest to find the best açaí bowl in Rio de Janeiro now complete, we turn our energies to sorting out the best of our favorite Bahian dish: the classic acarajé. From the cobblestone streets of the Pelourinho to the beaches of Barra and the largos of Rio Vermelho, no Baiana in Salvador is safe from our rating scale. We’ll be searching far and wide to find our favorite in the city. Here’s our rating scale:
Value: Out of 5. Below R$3, 5/5; 3-4, 4/5; 4-5, 3/5; 5-6, 2/5; 6-7, 1/5; over 7, 0/5.
Taste/Texture: Out of 15. We need a solid acarajé, not too mushy or too hard, and a fresh, baiana-made taste.
Vatapá: Out of 5. How amazingly peanuty is it? How’s the texture? Did you let it sit too long in the sun? You will be harshly judged for messing up our favorite condiment; but handsomely rewarded if you do it well.
Salada: Out of 5. Perhaps even more overlooked than Vatapá – salada is the Pico de Gallo-esque mix of tomatoes and cilantro that is supposed to add a little crunch to the mix. How fresh is it? Does it add anything to the acaraje or is it just a watery mess?
Extras: Out of 5. Friendliness? Speed? Cleanliness? General awesomeoness of baiana outfit? Anything extra goes in this potpourri category.
For now, please enjoy our favorite song about Acarajé – “Retratos da Bahia” by Riachão
While we are in Salvador partaking in the city’s extensive acarajé offerings, visitors to Salvador for next year’s FIFA World Cup (possibly us!) will not have such an opportunity. For a series of complex reasons outlined by Jamie Anderson on her blog about life and culture in Salvador, the sale of acarajé will be banned within two kilometers of the refurbished Estadio Fonte Nova, the site of all the World Cup games here. Instead, McDonald’s – a major World Cup sponsor – will have full rights to all food distribution. As such, Bahia’s main street food – a major source of income for locals, and an integral part of the experience of Salvador – will be banned in favor of an American fast food establishment. Coca Cola’s recent billboard in support of baianas and acarajé (seen below) is a great commentary on the issue: Coca Cola claims it is working to “preserve this culture,” but what does it mean that a large corporate entity is working to preserve a culture of Afro-Brazilian street food? We’d like to think that acarajé is doing well otherwise, and will do even better if allowed to continue on its own terms.
Needless to say, we at ETW do not support the move, and you can do the same: sign the petition at Change.org in support of baianas’ right to sell acarajé during the World Cup.
Praça General Osório, Ipanema
Rio de Janeiro
One of our favorite treats in Bahia was acarajé, fried chickpea fritters. You can find acarajé stand on nearly every corner in Salvador da Bahia, however it is a little rarer in Rio de Janeiro. But fear not, we found a place to get our acarajé fix. There is an acarajé stand at the Feira Hippie “Hippy Market” in Praça General Osório, Ipanema, Sundays until 5 PM. While the main stock in trade at the Feira is clothing, bags and souvenirs, we were on a mission for another good for sale: acarajé. There are two acarajé stands bordering the feira, and we patronized the one closer to the beach, since it seemed to be doing brisker business. The stand itself is only there for the feira, but there is a complete setup – including the requisite vats of hot oil for frying the fritters. Each acarajé costs R$ 8 ($4 US), which would be considered highway robbery in Bahia.
A Taste of Bahia in Rio
However, due to our hankering for acarajé, we thought it would be worth it for a splurge. Even compared to the acarajé in Bahia, we thought the Rio rendition was extremely delicious, and it was fresh out of the fryer. Along with the acarajé, you can get the traditional topping of peppers, salad and vatapá (a sort of condiment with shrimp and palm oil). The vatapá was fresh and we loved the fresh cilantro in the salad topping. So it may cost you double of those in Bahia, but Cariocas have a place to get an acarajé fix.
SENAC Restaurant School
Praça José de Alencar, 13/19
Largo do Pelourinho
Salvador – BA, Brasil
Regional Bahian cuisine has a flavor and style all its own in the landscape of Brazilian food. Its Portuguese and Dutch European backings, and Native Brazilian undertones and flourishes, and all heavily impacted by Bahia’s major western and central African influences. And you can experience the best of all of these wonderful flavors served up at the SENAC Restaurant School, which offers both “food by the kilo” and all-you-can-eat buffet options at reasonable prices. We opted for the buffet, run by the state restaurant school, and offering a wide variety (40+) of dishes including appetizers, mains and desserts, all prepared by students. The restaurant is open for lunch every day from 11 AM to 3 PM and the cost is 36 Reais per person as of writing (about $20) which is a pretty good price for an all you can eat buffet, even by Salvador’s very reasonable food prices.
For sheer breadth alone, this is a great way to get an introduction to a wide variety of Bahian foods. The appetizers and main courses are displayed in a traditional steam table, with a separate little table for desserts. Our chosen appetizers included:
Moquecas – one of the classic Bahian dishes, the food everyone’s Mom makes best. Moquecas are usually seafood stews made with coconut milk, and garnished with farofa, carurú, cilantro, and tomatoes. SENAC also served a chicken moqueca, but in tasting this was indistinguishable from the xinxim.
Feijoada – Brazil’s national dish, a hearty and smoky black bean and meat stew
Crab and Shrimp Salad
And the desserts:
Cocadas – fresh coconut patties mixed with a lot of brown sugar, coming in a variety of tropical fruit flavors
Quindim – Egg and Coconut tarts
Portuguese egg tarts
Ambrosia – Condensed milk, cinnamon and egg dessert(almost pudding-like)
We can only assume that there is little change in variety each day, especially given the wide range of selections they already put out. We’ll readily admit that while none of the food blew us away, the price, variety, and very solid and tasty dishes definitely met our expectations. And in addition to the food, the view is nice as well – located on the 2nd floor of one of the Pelourinho district’s many restored colonial buildings, it looks out onto Salvador’s most famous square below, and the many windows provide a nice breeze. SENAC’s friendly waitresses are dresses as baianas, and are very attentive (drinks are extra, about R$2). So if it’s your first day in Salvador and need a reasonably-priced way to experience Bahian cuisine, head to SENAC.
Both of the Eaters have arrived in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil – look for more Brazil-updated posts in the coming months. In the meantime, enjoy this song about Bahia, sung by Jorge Ben, that mentions some of the many delicious food items like Vatapá, Carurú and Acarajé.
Welcome to Eating the World! We’re two Midwestern omnivores, L and M, who are trying to eat food from every country in the world (at restaurants in both the US and abroad). Eating the World is where we update our global restaurant and food adventures. We are based in Cleveland, Chicago and beyond.To contact us for partnerships or just to say hi, email us at eating the world (at) gmail.com
Eating The World · We're two Midwestern omnivores, L and M, who are trying to eat food from every country in the world (at restaurants in both the US and abroad). Eating the World is where we update our global restaurant and food adventures. We are based in Cleveland, Chicago and beyond.