Reporting from Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, this is Chef Boy Ari. Although sometimes called the “Land of Happiness,” Bahia hasn’t always been bourbon and back-rubs all around. Over 3.5 million African slaves landed in Salvador, whence they were dispersed all over Brazil.
Today, African blood and culture continue to run thick. Nearly everyone in Salvador is part African, often mixed with native Indian and European blood. Not surprisingly, this mixing produces stunningly beautiful results, inducing many broken hearts, car accidents, and many more mixed-blood babies.
Africa pervades the music here as well. Heavy west African Yoruba beats, heated and mixed in the Brazilian crucible, have evolved into a neon ocean of swing. Yesterday I wrote down 12 verbs that all describe the art of shaking your ass.
And of course, Africa is in the food as well. Walking the streets of Salvador, you are rarely out of nose-shot from the smell of boiling palm oil. It is in these sizzling vats of deep-fried pleasure that dollops of the mashed bean feijao frajino are dropped. When golden brown, they are removed from the oil, cut in half, and made into a sandwich with tomato/onion vinaigrette, hot pepper and shrimp. This is acaraje, and it is not a problem.
Another Bahian staple is the coconut, easily nature’s most perfect food—after mayonnaise. Coconut oil shares the distinction with palm oil of being the fattiest vegetable oil on earth. And we all know that fat = flavor. Green coconuts are my favorite. Unlike brown coconuts, which have thick flesh and only a thimbleful of water, green coconuts have thin and jelly-like flesh, and the water is plentiful—maybe half a liter per coconut. You hack off the top of a cold green coconut with a machete, drink the water, and it’s like taking your body to Jiffy Lube.
OK, OK, OK. Maybe that’s enough talk about food like palm oil, coconuts, and shrimp. Maybe at this point I will discuss a type of food that you can make in Montana: the Bahian specialty carne do sol.
Carne do sol means sun-dried meat, which is how they used to preserve it. Nowadays, you can no longer get sun-dried meat, but you can get salt-cured meat, and that is what they use today in the recipe that is still known as carne do sol.
I went to the store with my buddy Myo’oi, a chanting Buddhist, guitar-dazzling madman. Myo’oi asked the guy at the meat counter for a kilo of carne do sol. The meat guy cut some slices from a salted roast.
Then Myo’oi knelt down in front of the bin of aipim, which are the same thing as manioc tubers, also known as cassava (which I have seen in stores around Missoula, or, you can substitute potatoes). Myo’oi was digging through the aipim, breaking off the tip of each one and looking at the flesh, only choosing those with perfectly crispy and unblemished white flesh. I thought to myself “Jeez, this guy sure is anal. Just go with the flow, man, we don’t need only the most perfect aipim. They’re all good.”
We also bought onions, butter, and parmesan cheese. I also purchased, for subsequent experiments, one jar of pickled palm hearts and some green olives. And for immediate consumption: one large bar of local, dark chocolate the color of African skin.
Back at home, Myo’oi cut the meat into chunks and put them in a pot of water to soak the salt out. During a thirty-minute soak, he changed the water twice. While the meat was soaking, he began peeling and chunking the aipim. The second aipim that he cut was brown inside. Myo’oi shook his head. The next one fell apart in his hands. Gross. “I didn’t choose well,” he said.
Myo’oi put the aipim chunks in salted water to boil. Then he drained the soaking meat, patted dry the chunks, and threw them in a hot pan. No oil? No oil. But dig this: soon the wet meat started weeping water into the pan, which began to sizzle and steam beneath the meat, forming a fatty, salty broth. He did not stir the contents. On top of the cooking meat, Myo’oi dumped a generous portion of chopped onion. Then he poured on some olive oil. And he continued to not stir the contents.
When the aipim were soft, Myo’oi drained and mashed them into a pulp, adding butter and copious parmesan cheese. He advised that a blender or Cuisinart would be good at this point for removing all chunks.
Finally, Myo’oi began stirring the meat, which at this point had produced quite the tantaliscious aroma. He poured the aipim purée onto a plate and baked it in the oven until it had a thin, crispy skin. Then he removed the plate, added the contents of the pan, and before you could recite 12 Brazilian words for shaking your ass, we were doing the spoon dance. And when I get home, I’m gonna thaw and salt some deer meat from the freezer, and make me some Montana-style carne do sol.
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