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Comida baiana: dishes and ingredients

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The secret of Bahian cooking is twofold: a rich seafood base, and the abundance of traditional West African ingredients like palm oil, nuts, coconut and ferociously strong peppers. Many ingredients and dishes have African names. Most famous of all is vatapá, a bright yellow porridge of palm oil, coconut, shrimp and garlic, which looks vaguely unappetizing but is delicious. Other dishes to look out for are moqueca, seafood cooked in the inevitable palm-oil-based sauce; caruru, with many of the same ingredients as vatapá but with the vital addition of loads of okra; and acarajé, deep-fried bean cake stuffed with vatapá, salad and (optional) hot pepper. Bahian cuisine also has good desserts, less stickily sweet than elsewhere: quindim is a delicious small cake of coconut flavoured with vanilla, which often comes with a prune in the middle.

Some of the best food is also the cheapest, and even gourmets could do a lot worse than start with the street-corner baianas, women in traditional white dress. Be careful of the pimenta, the very hot pepper sauce, which newcomers should treat with respect, taking only a few drops. The baianas serve quindim, vatapá, slabs of maize pudding wrapped in banana leaves, fried bananas dusted with icing sugar, and fried sticks of sweet batter covered with sugar and cinnamon – all absolutely wonderful.

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