The Brazilian Festival in India (Delhi and Goa) between October 11 and November 15 has many treats planned and one of the interesting things Indians may encounter is the craft of ‘the Baiana of the acaraje’, a declared cultural heritage of Brazil since August 15, 2005. In the Brazilian state of Bahia (capital, Salvador), these women of African origin, dressed in a full, round skirt, shawl, turban and necklaces in the colours of their personal deities, sell trays of typical home-made snacks. The star item is the acaraje (‘akaraazhe’), made of black-eyed bean paste and fried in palm oil that is a sacred offering of the Candomble religion. This faith came to Brazil on slave ships from Yorubaland in West Africa (now divided up as Nigeria, Benin and Togo, a medley of groups united by a common language, Yoruba, and culture). It seeems about two million Brazilians today (1.5 per cent of the population) officially count Candomble as their religion and it is practised in other countries also.
The theology of Candomble (pronounced ‘Candombla’ with an open vowel at the end) is particularly interesting to Indians. A Supreme God, Olodumare or Olorun in Yoruba (with other names in other African communities), created the world and to give weak mortals an approach route, created patron deities (orixas). The deities are believed to ‘possess’ devotees during trances. The rituals include singing, dancing and offering special dishes like the acaraje.
The Yoruba slave women in Brazil, says one account, made and offered acaraje to Iansaa, deity of the wind, now mixed up with Saint Barbara of Catholic pedigree, to calm down their ‘sinhas’ (owners), who mistreated them. Says a Baiana lady in an interview to Carolina Cantarino (Texts from Brazil, No 13, Ministry of External Relations, Brazil), “Faith moves mountains, doesn’t it? They had faith that the sinha would become gentler, nicer, calmer.”
The Catholic Church came down heavily on the slaves’ religion but their faith survived four hundred years and after the abolition of slavery and the democratisation of Brazil, say Brazilians, they share each other’s culture. And certainly, their cuisine. So widespread did the acaraje become as a street snack across Brazil, that the Baianas fought to have it recognised as a cultural property before it got taken away and patented by a richer group, as apparently happened with the Brazilian acai palm. There is even a ‘Baiana of the acarje’ association, with over two thousand members.
Now a symbol of Brazilian feminine and cultural resistance not only within Brazilian society but internationally, this brave little Brazilian bhog is celebrated as a building block of national identity.