Salvador, Bahia: sights and bites

The word “carnival” derives from the Latin words meaning “meat” and “goodbye”. The festival always precedes the fasting and frugality of Lent and is seen as a last chance to indulge in feasting, drinking and general revelry. Sounds good to me!

Many people told me Salvador’s carnival is the “melhor do mundo” – the best in the the world. One day I will experience Rio’s famous sambadromo offering to make my mind up but for now I am firmly Team Salvador – it’s more about getting involved with dancing behind the thumping “trios” crawling slowly along the circuit than watching performers at a distance. And the setting is ideal, particularly the Barra route which is right next to a stunning beach.

Mark and I decided to join in as “pipoca” (meaning popcorn because of how you look jumping around on the street) rather than paying a premium to be part of the roped-off blocos following the artists or the fixed camarote venues along the sides. I’m so glad we did – we had a blast at the centre of the action, for free! Although it was busy, the crowds were not at the mosh pit levels we were warned to expect. Frankly it was nothing compared to the London rush hour commutes we are used to and of course everyone is in great spirits! We were careful with safety though, taking no valuables, just a bit of cash (and with cans of beer just 1 Real – around 30p – we didn’t need much!)

Sadly this means we have none of our own pictures but we made friends with some seasoned Carnival goers, including one who hid her camera away from thieves in her underwear and snapped these:

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Carnival during the daytime is a lot less chaotic, letting us take in more of the former capital’s beautiful colonial and Baroque architecture, especially where we were staying in the historic centre of Pelhourinho:

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Of the five days we spent in Salvador over Carnival weekend, we took some time off to recover, rest our tired dancing feet and explore other aspects of the city and coast. We visited the “Mercado Modelo” market with unusual fruits, ceramics and live animals for sale.

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Fresh cashew fruit

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Mark had to drag me away from a brilliant wooden spoon shop before I bought the lot (here I am debating which to buy – I ended up with the normal-sized reddish one)

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We visited the “Igreja São Francisco” church to check out the baroque style, Portuguese tiles and impressive gold decorations.

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In the spirit of Carnival, we made sure to feast well. Here are some of the food highlights which made us salivate in Salvador:

Moqueca
One of my favourite Bahian specialities, moqueca is a spicy stew packed with African flavours. It is cooked with dendê (palm) oil which gives it a rich red colour and a distinctive taste. Typically it includes seafood such as siri (crab) or dourado (catfish) added to a base of onions, peppers and coconut. Often served in enormous portions enough for 2+, in large clay pots which give the dish its name.

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Vatapá
Mark’s favourite, an unusual dish made from toasted cashews ground to a sticky paste with coconut and dried shrimp. Reminded me a bit of Mexican mole.

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Acarajé
Bahia’s quintessential quick street food snack, although ironically very labour intensive to make. Beans are mashed with onions and spices, formed into patties and then deep fried for a crunchy coating. It is served stuffed with tiny dried/smoked shrimp (eaten shells and all), vatapá and salad. Acarajé is sold in squares and on street corners throughout Bahia and is a favourite of the region; we were told that a new McDonalds was forced to close after it failed to compete with a popular acarajé stall on the same road!

Feijoada
Practically Brazil’s national dish, feijoada is a flavourful, hearty peasant-style meal made with beans and smoked/dried meat, often pork. A stodgy bowlful would be the perfect thing to warm you up on a cold evening in the UK but it is equally good as a weekend lunch with caipirinha as they have it here.There are thousands of versions and family recipes; we have enjoyed feijoada made with sausage, pork knuckle, and various bits of offal.

Accompaniments
“Manioc mush” is a bit like sweet potato or swede mash and served with many dishes e.g. moqueca. Farofa is toasted manioc flour mixed with onion, bacon or other flavourings and sprinkled liberally over meals as a popular condiment to add flavour and crunch. Arroz (rice) and feijão (beans) seem to come as standard with many dishes.

Mangoes
Oh my god, the mangoes. I always thought the best in the world were Alphonso mangoes from Pakistan but Brazil boasts a staggering range of the fruit in all different shapes, sizes, fragrances and colours. Some have delicate, thin skins which you can bite into like an apple. This guy was the size of my head and perfectly sweet, soft and ripe throughout – no stringy bits whatsoever.

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Now, post-carnival, we are heading to Lencois to get back to nature with some trekking at Chapada Diamantina National Park.

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2 responses to “Salvador, Bahia: sights and bites

  1. Dear Leila,

    Your blog is mouth-watering, as are the tales of travels and the thoughts of Carnival. Live it up, Leila. This is the perfect quest for a child of your mother, one who grew up eating delightful delicacies from around the world.

    Best wishes and safe travels,
    ~Peggy Travers
    x x x

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