Salt, Stodge and Sarapatel: Getting Stuffed in Salvador de Bahia

Açaí ice cream. I’d never even heard of this palm fruit before. The ice cream was nice, though, a bit like dragon fruit, not nearly as zesty as its appearance suggested. Açaí is now marketed as having all kinds of health benefits. Most of these claims are spurious.

Never one to miss a trick, my son Herbie was immensely tickled at the name of the first airline we used in Latin American: LAN. “Felix would love it,” he said of his little brother who, much to my regret, I could not afford to bring along on this six-week trip.

Herbie was referring to his brother’s fondness for employing the Chinese word “lan” (爛) meaning rotten/crap/stinks/sucks to stuff he thinks is substandard at any available opportunity.

Pastels are available at salgados stores everywhere with a variety of fillings. This one was mincemeat and cheese and tasted remarkably like a calzone. It’s cheap and easy fast food but a surefire route to acid reflux after a while.

Mess up on the Line app game Cookie Run and you will be derided with a snort of “hao lan” (好爛), roughly equivalent to “you’re rubbish.” Stick an uncool song on YouTube and you’ll inevitably receive the same admonishment.

Often, these gleeful guffaws at the lameness or misfortune of others are unfair and spiteful. Almost anything that anyone else does can be branded “lan.” In the case of the airline, however, the coincidental homophone is appropriate.

Fried “Japanese” yakisoba noodles with prawns at a restaurant run by Cantonese immigrants.

Early last month, I was left sitting in an aeroplane for almost two hours in Santiago, Chile, without explanation or apology for the delay (at least not in English). This led to me missing a connection to Asuncion, Paraguay, where I had just a few days to work on a personal project, which I hope will eventually bear fruit in the form of a published work.

I could almost hear Felix bellowing “FEICHANG LAN” (extremely “lan”) in disgust as I disembarked. On top of the missed flight, I came down with a cold, the main symptom of which was a really sore, inflamed throat. Hardly the best state of affairs for conducting interviews.

In a pickle: Not sure exactly what these slightly bitter peppers were but they weren’t half bad as a quick snack en route to Germany vs. France at Rio’s Maracana Stadium.

Fortune finally shined on me and I managed to get on the next flight a couple of hours later. I’d originally hoped to get to my hostel in downtown Asuncion in time to catch the semi between Brazil and Germany, but that proved a non-starter. By the time I arrived at the airport it was 5-0. Like others who walked in on the proceedings midway through, I squinted long and hard to make sure.

While waiting for that next flight, I decided to start writing this blog on the food I ate during my week in Brazil, in particular, during the four days I spent in Salvador. I haven’t got round to finishing it till now.

I grabbed a portion of this popcorn with a twist for Herb down the road from Copacabana beach. Surely all popcorn should contain bacon!

First off, I was surprised at how heavy the mainstays of Brazilian street food are. I’d travelled in Argentina, Peru and Chile in 2007 and was aware that empanadas, quiches, savory tarts and pies/pasties of all descriptions were available across Latin America, but – not having thoroughly researched the matter before I set off – I had for some reason expected Brazil to offer lighter, Mediterranean-type fare.

This was partly because the only dish I really knew was moqueca – a fish stew – a bastardized version of which I have been rustling up in my kitchens in Taiwan for a good few years. It’s one of about five showpiece dishes I do and, when I get it right, it’s not half bad.

No substitute for Moqueca: A rather bland fish stew at a buffet restaurant off Barra beach.

The dish is native to Salvador, so it was mandatory that I sought it out while in town for the round-of-16 match between the U.S. and Belgium. Unfortunately, circumstances dictated that I didn’t manage to sample the real deal it in its natural setting, though I did get hold of a watered-down version (more akin to my take on it) at an all-you-can-eat buffet down the road from the FIFA Fan Fest zone on Barra Beach.

At 23.5 reals (NT$315), this buffet was a good deal, even with the sly added 7.5-real surcharge that my Argie companion spotted mid-scoff on a small poster in the corner of the restaurant. I crammed my pie hole with everything in sight, going back for fourths and fifths, much to the amusement of the two young waiters.

Our handsome young waiters. The youngster on the right was a really nice lad. He couldn’t stop giggling as, stuffed to bursting point, I returned time and again to get my 23.5 reals’ worth!

The day before, I’d lunched at the kilo-buffet down the hill from our hostel in Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic district. The most common type of self-service eateries in Brazil, these places charge by weight.

Herb was fixated with getting a dessert/milkshake from a nearby store called Mr Mix (in fairness this establishment does serve up some delectable sweetness), so we left The Argie in the slop-shop with an Ecuadorean-American we had picked up along with our match tickets at the official FIFA site Iguatemi Shopping.

In the Mix: Herbie’s heaven.

By the time we returned, the pickings at the buffet were rather slim but they still had some Feijoada and it seemed like the right place to start. Alas, I wasn’t too impressed with my first try of Brazil’s signature meat and black bean stew.

This place had the working class credentials that bode well, and I’m inclined to think their feijoada was probably more authentic than what I tried at the Barra buffet the next day, but it was all flabby skin and gristle with barely a shred of meat.

Full of beans: Feijoada.

In fact, the main piece of meat was remarkably similar to the braised pork knuckle/shank (豬腳) that has many Taiwanese drooling like neglected canines at the foot of a heartless glutton’s bountiful dining table.

(I should add here that I’m not averse to a bit of pig’s leg but it has to be something with more meaty substance, such as the shoulder/hock, commonly known as ti pang (蹄髈). The various cuts of leg that are served up in Taiwan are usually slow cooked in soy and basic spices [star anise usually featuring] in a fashion that varies only in the minutiae, giving them a standard aroma and taste that is certainly not to everyone’s liking. I’m pretty sure the pungency of these parts derives from their being cooked as they are cut, skin, fat, cartilaginous tissue and all. For a long time, I thought these cuts were one and the same and that some just had more meat than others. The fact that they are often conflated even by local gourmands didn’t help. While it is true that pig’s knuckle proper can vary in meatiness, ti pang always has more meat, though not necessarily less excess baggage. Eventually, a few years back, my long time dining companion The Inveterate Bede and I discovered the difference. Pig trotter consumption has never been the same since.)

Knackered after a long day’s lig at the beach, Herb and I went to a kilo buffet in Copacabana. It was a good deal pricier than Salvador but jam packed full of tastiness, On the right hand side of this plate is some torresmo (pork rinds). Next to that, at the back, is some vatapá, a thick peanut and coconut sauce with prawns. As a filler for acarajé in Salvador, I hadn’t thought much of it but as a curry-type dish in it’s own right, it was first rate.

A couple of compartments down the buffet table from the feijoada, a trio of haggard sausages sat neglected like dried up earthworms, unfit for even the most ravenous late bird. Nestled in between were frazzled up bits of crackling. Before I had even thought about reaching across for these tempters, a sinewy old local was pouncing at the them, tongs primed like a praying mantis. I made off with the last couple of pieces. Bloody delicious they were, Herb agreed.

Brazilians love to wash down their beer with salty morsels like these and I found variations of torresmo, as they are known, all over the place. Most of the time they were akin to the crunchy titbits we call pork scratchings in the UK (pork rinds in North America), but with the fat sizzled away. The thin strips I got in Salvador, though, were more like the Christmas crackling I remember as a nipper.

Acarajé on the fry.

Torresmo was introduced by the Portuguese but, as with almost everything one comes across in Salvador, supposedly has African touches, in this case in the form of the seasoning. If there was anything under all that salt, I certainly couldn’t detect it. There’s little subtlety to this stuff. It’s basically sizzled skin and fat. It must be a godsend to Brazil’s cardiologists, but it sure does taste good. The Scots would love it. After a few, mind, you are definitely gasping for that beer.

Usually the Baiana vendors look fairly puritanical, donning plain white cotton outfits. For WC everyone was hamming it up in Salvador’s show costumes, with ostentatious hoop skirt. This vendor had just served another customer before making sure she looked her best for me.

In the run-up to the World Cup, a couple of reports highlighted the extent of FIFA’s (in this particular case, literally) unsavoury restrictions on local culture and commerce. Among the most despicable was the stipulation that food vendors were not allowed to ply their trade within a mile of the stadia in the host cities. Quite rightly, it was pointed out that, for many, local cuisine is an indispensable element of experiencing and appreciating a different culture.

Apart from Brahma Beer and the ice cream brands, there was nothing Brazilian about the fare on offer at the venues. By preventing street hawkers from working the environs, Septic Bladder and co. were stripping the event of a vital strand of its national identity, just as they had attempted to do in South Africa.

And here’s one we prepared earlier: acarajé – about as Bahian as you can get.

However, the Baianas de acarajé, Salvador’s distinctively accoutred female vendors (the usual garb is a plain white cotton dress and a headscarf, but they ratcheted stuff up for the WC, donning the hoop skirts that make them look like multicolored Mr. Men) were having none of it. They launched a large protest which culminated in a sheepish and satisfying climbdown by FIFA.

All the better for everyday fans who who could tuck in to snacks like acarajé. There’s no doubt about the origin of this deep-fried snack. It can still be found in Nigeria (the etymological clue lingers in the name akara), Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa.

Filling kibbeh and drink for around NT$33.

Bahian acarajé consists of a roundish fritter which is traditionally made from mashed black eyed peas (though cheaper brown beans are now de rigueur) and flour and stuffed with a salad of chopped tomatoes, lettuce, onions and coriander, and small crispy shrimp. Depending on your tastes and the particular stall, a wicked, freshly made chilli sauce is also available.

For some reason, I was sure the acarajé I ate also included cassava/manioc (or mandioca, as it is known throughout Latin America) as a filling but from what I later determined, this is usually only used as an ingredient for the batter.

Kibbeh. This one didn’t have any meat in it.

Instead, I later surmised that the main filler I was tasting was vatapá, made from peanuts, cashews, more shrimp and coconut. Like almost every Bahian dish, this paste also contains palm oil (dendé). This highly saturated oil is almost solid at room temperature, hence the rather gloopy aspect to the acarajé filler. With my nonexistent Portuguese, I wasn’t sure how to order at the time, but cararu – stewed okra – is another option.

Cassava is an interesting story in itself. For a long time, I’d erroneously believed this tuber was first cultivated on the African continent. My mistake is, in part, attributable to The African Dream, Che Guevara’s posthumously published account of his time in Congo, which I read not long before I came to Taiwan.

I’m not sure what the significance of this display was. At first I thought it was just a tourist gimmick as there were plenty of women dolled up in bright colours, makeup and hoop skirts milling around and charging tourists for photos here in the square opposite Pelourinho’s “elevator”. However I stood here and took photos for a while without anyone approaching, so I’m wondering if the table of fruit was some kind of offering. I didn’t get the chance to look into Candomblé, the syncretic, Afro-Brazilian faith of Salvador but the little doll here looked like she might be Oya, the wind deity, or some other Orisha from this fascinating religion.

The Argentine revolutionary’s attempt to fashion comrades in arms out of indifferent and disinclined Congolese was a miserable failure at every step, but in few passages of the memoir does his exasperation surface more obviously than in his ruminations on manioc.

“The soldier’s staple food,” writes Guevara, “ is bukali, which is made as follows. Manioc root is peeled and left to dry in the sun for a few days; then it is ground in a mortar exactly like those used for grinding coffee in our mountain regions; the resulting flour is sifted, boiled in water until it forms a paste, and the eaten. If the will is there, bukali provides you with the necessary carbohydrates, but what was eaten there was semi-raw, unsalted cassava …”

The free sample of quiabada stew I got in Santa Barbara market, Pelourinho.

Still chins up, boys. If this doesn’t exactly have your mouth watering, Guevara informs us that “this was sometimes complemented with zombe, cassava leaves pounded and boiled, and seasoned with a little palm oil.”

Elsewhere, we learn that the root is also used to produce a dodgy alcoholic concoction known as pombe. (the Swahili word for “beer,” which seems to cover beverages brewed from a range of ingredients, including bananas and various types of millet). A trained epidemiologist, Guevara assisted at a medical clinic for a time where he “had a chance to see some cases of alcohol poisoning caused by the famous pombe.”

Guevara observes, “This is a spirit distilled from the juice of maize and manioc flour, which is not high in alcohol but has terrible effects. Presumably these arise not so much from the alcoholization per se, as from the amount of impurities, given the rudimentary methods of production. There were days when pombe washed over the camp, leaving behind a trail of brawling, poisoning, indiscipline and so on.”

Sounds like your average British city on a Friday night.

And the lovely proprietress who gave me the sample and told me that I’d have to look elsewhere for sarapatel.

The other reason I had believed cassava to be native to Africa was because it was available among the fruit and veg at the local shops the last time I was back home. These places are particularly geared toward Middle Eastern and African immigrants and now stock stuff that you would have had to procure from specialist suppliers back in the day.

I can’t remember exactly what other ingredients, if any, I used but I do remember trying my hand at a dish that had mashed cassava as an accompaniment, with reasonable results.
What is interesting about my misunderstanding is that it was the Portuguese who brought mandioca to Africa from Brazil in the 16th century. Things then went full circle with African slaves returning the hardy tuber to its home in the form of dishes that were inevitably fused with Latin elements (the shrimp and salad in acarajé, for example).

Liver at a roadside stall in Pelourinho. It seemed to be served plain like this.

In our own dear Taiwan, cassava (木薯) can be seen down the markets. As much as I love the food in this country, the local penchant for bland, rubbery filler, particularly in sweet dishes remains a mystery to me. Che Guevara, I’m convinced, would share my disdain for the flavourless “pearls” in Taiwan’s signature pearl milk tea (珍珠奶茶), which are made with cassava starch, known as tapioca. So, basically, Taiwanese bukali. In Brazil, tapioca is used to refer to the small flat bread made from the starch, commonly served with cheese as a breakfast food.

But enough of this tasteless talk! Acarajé is certainly not bland. The combination of crispy outer-shell, which reminded me of Taiwanese deep-fried bread sticks (youtiao, 油條), with the salad, salsa and shrimp filler is fantastic. I’d probably substitute the vatapá paste for the lady’s fingers next time.

Chillis at the buffet in Copcabana. They were hot as you like and tasted like they had been pickled in strong alcohol.

Instantly contradicting myself as is my wont, I’d have to say that my favourite street snack was far from the explosion of flavours you get with acarajé. Nevertheless, Kibbeh, which is a staple in many Middle Eastern countries and was brought to Brazil by Syrian and Lebanese immigrants, is cheap, filling and tasty. And, unlike much of the world’s best street food, these mini-rugby-ball croquettes are pretty wholesome and don’t leave you feeling like your arterial walls are being coated with plaque with every bite.

In Salvador, I bought one from a vendor while waiting near Praça da Sé for the bus to Barra. At first I thought vendor was ripping me off as she seemed to be charging me a bit more than the advertised price, but she was actually giving me the “set meal.” As with many salgado (the term for a range of small snacks) stalls or hole-in-the-wall gaffs in Brazil, you can get your snack with cup of sugary fruit drink for an extra couple of shekels.

Not entirely sure about this lot but I think the sausage-shaped items at the front are whole fried plantains. I saw the other disc-shaped snacks around town but never got round to trying them. Fritters of some kind. Coconut? Beans?

I’m pretty sure this first one contained just bulgur wheat, the main constituent of kibbeh, and seasoning. I’ve heard that meat substitutes such as soy protein or tofu are sometimes used but there didn’t appear to be anything like that in my croquette.

Although the type I tried in Salvador was plain, it was the kind of bready, savoury comfort food that I find makes a nice change from relentless fried filth. The stall had a tart green hot sauce that I came across a few times in Brazil. “Es muy picante?” I asked in the wrong language. The vendor nodded, giving me a gap toothed wince of warning as I smothered the bastard.

On our last night in Brazil, at Copacabana beach in Rio, I grabbed another kibbeh off one of the faux-Islamic vendors as The Argie and I watched Brazil’s false dawn in their quarterfinal against Colombia. Herb frolicked among the waves with some outrageously acrobatic local kids. This was the business. Onions, minced beef and a wonderful blend of spices encased in a crispy, fried breadcrumb shell.

This was a chance discovery: I’d gone on a beer run to a corner store and left Herb with the Argie and some of his compatriots whom we met on Copcabana beach swilling Fernet and chasing pigeons. In addition to the beer, I picked up this loaf of bread, which the guy at the store claimed wasn’t sweet but was, plain white cheese and a jam. I obviously hadn’t intended to eat them together but later discovered from a Web site on must-try Brazilian food that I had coincidentally stumbled upon a famous combination: Romeo and Juliet. This strange snack consists of the exact same bland farmer’s cheese (a local cheese known as Minas) I had bought with the jam, which – as the Argies on the beach had correctly informed me – is a guava preserve known goiabada. As I hadn’t actually tried the two together that first time, I did so in the early hours just before our flight out to Chile. It works but isn’t the amazing combo that some people rave about.

For the second time that night, a British tourist asked what I was eating only to turn his nose up as I completed my description. At least the American fellow who did the same as I devoured my acarajé in Salvador was eyeing an item whose contents weren’t that easy to ascertain. I really can’t think of anything not to like about kibbeh.

Later that night, rather drunk and supposed to be writing the previous post in this blog for Taipei Times,I finally got hold of a fine moqueca in the Gloria neighbourhood of Rio, where we were staying. Back in Pelourinho, another Bahian speciality had eluded me right up until the end of our stay, and I shall end with some reflections on this dish.

Gustavo, one of the staff at our hostel, the Nega Meluca, was helping the cook prepare bolinha de chuva, a kind of fried dough coated in cinnamon and sugar one morning and noticed my interest in what they were doing.“You like cooking?” he asked. “I cook a bit,” I replied. “What should I try in Salvador? I know about moqueca and all that, but I’m looking for something a bit different.”

No guts, no glory: sarapatel.

He thought about it for a second. “There is one thing. But it’s a little …”

“Internal organs?”

“Yes. That’s it.” He smiled approvingly at my guess.

“That’s fine. Where can I get some?”

Sarapatel can also be found in Goa and other former Portuguese colonies in India, including Mumbai, where it is called Sorpotel. Ingredients and cooking methods vary considerably but in general, the dish consists of innards, parboiled and cooked in a vinegary sauce with moderate spicing.

The offal used can include almost anything. Liver, lungs and heart are supposed to be most common, but I’m pretty certain mine contained intestine. Solidified cubes of blood, similar to those wibble-wobble blocks of jellied blood that are used for “hot and numbing” stinky tofu (麻辣臭豆腐) in Taiwan, are also sometimes used.

The innards with some chilli and a bit of farofa on the side, saturated with intestinal juices. Mmmm.

Gustavo’s suggested first port of call in Pelourinho was the market at the Centro Commercial Santa Barbara, right next to Herb’s beloved Mr. Mix. I had a quick look around there, but was informed that there was no Sarapatel to be had. This jaunt was not without reward, though, as a friendly woman at a small eatery near the entrance to the market gave me a free sample of a pork and okra stew she had simmering on the hob.

I got her to jot down the name in my confusing mess of a notebook: quiabada. The examples of the dish that I’ve been able to find online usually contain sausage, though many Brazilian meals appear pretty flexible with the ingredients, especially the meat, common practice seeming to be to use whatever is to hand.

Gustavo frying up some bolinho for brekkie at the hostel. Herb loved em.

My second bid to track down sarapatel was on match day. We were at the Cantina da Lua on the main bar on the Praça/Largo Terreiro de Jesus, which was the hub of the World Cup revelry.

The Argie had convinced me to let our hostel owner’s daughter paint me in Albicelestes colours for the early round-of-16 game between Argentina and Switzerland. As someone with Swiss heritage from a footballing culture where it’s a toss-up between Argentina and Germany for the dishonour of most vilified adversary, this was about as disgraceful as you can get. Thankfully my old man, part of a generation that still denies “that cheating Argie” Diego Maradona was the greatest footballer of all time, simply because he is “that cheating Argie” isn’t on Facebook and, thus, remains oblivious to my treachery.

Toward the end of the first half, I struck up a conversation with an interesting chap who was born in Salvador but lived in Holland and seemed to have family ties all over the world. His eyes lit up when I asked where I might get hold of some sarapatel.

Feeling chilli: Condiment heaven at the kilo buffet.

“Sarapatel. God, I miss that. I know just the place,” he said.

After the game, I resumed my quest, dragging The Argie and Herb with me. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t find the restaurant in question and, with time running out for us to walk to the stadium for the U.S-Belgium game, and both Herb and The Argie nagging, I decided to accept defeat.

Back at the hostel that evening, Gustavo confirmed the worst. “You won’t get any sarapatel at this time of night.”

An hour or so later, The Argie and I left Herb to his episodes of Glee on the crappy laptop on which I am now writing this and went halfway back down the hill to check out a live music event that we’d passed on our way up.

More buffet goodness.

The steps up to to the Igreja da Ordem Terceira do Carmo church where the gig was taking place and the street outside were mobbed. It doesn’t take much to get Brazilians moving and the jazz-inflected rhythms inspired the kinds of sultry gyrations one would hope for at a Brazilian street party. The mood was laid-back but boisterous, the temperature just right as the cool night shook off the swelter which had clasped the town for most of the day. Locals and tourists bounced around happily.

After a while, though, tiring of the constant jostling and the need to be on guard against sneak thiefs, which is never fun at the best of times but even less so when you’re half-cut, The Argie pulled me into a nearby bar.

Lo and behold, there on the sandwich board sign by the entrance was the word “sarapatel” in yellow chalk. I went straight up ordered some to the initial bewilderment of the goateed barman, who reconfirmed that this was really what I wanted, before pulling a frozen lump of assorted bits from the freezer. Not exactly what I’d had in mind but he assured me it was a good as any portion of entrails freshly ripped from a swine’s guts as he plonked it in the microwave.

I won’t lie. It wasn’t the best thing I have ever tasted. I’m not actually a big fan of liver, hearts and kidneys, mainly because of the overwhelmingly irony taste. Besides, the combination of all the day’s booze inside me, the dimly lit room and the vicosity of the stew made it hard to determine what was what. The bowl was served with farofa, toasted cassava flour, which comes as an accompaniment to many dishes, especially stews, where it is perfect for soaking up the juices.

What better way to help your Brazilian grub digest than a glass of Brazil’s favourite tipple, cachaça.

The rubbery small intestine was probably the highlight, if not in texture, at least in taste. Still, I was chuffed that I’d finally tracked the dish down and that I’d even managed to get The Argie to to have a spoonful.

We made our way back up the Ladeiro do Carmo, just about avoiding the upturned stones and holes in the ramshackle cobbled street, then ran into a group of Belgians whom we’d been hanging with at the hostel over the previous couple of days. They were in fine form, on the back of their victory against the U.S. and were belting out Jacques Brel numbers with gusto.

We joined them for a couple at the clock tower in the small plaza near our hostel, before retiring. In our dormitory, Herb was asleep on his side, his face squashed making the matrilineal bobble just below his philtrum protuberate even more than usual. I took a last look out of the window onto the back streets of Pelourinho, where barefoot urchins kick footballs for hours on end, clambered into the bunk opposite my Garbage Pail Kid and said goodnight to Salvador. The Argie was already snoring.

The Argie in all his glory.

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