Monday, January 2, 2012

Cira - The Best Acarajé

Cira's acarajé
Every year, the Brazilian newsmagazine Veja (think Time or Newsweek) publishes a gastronomic guide for each of the major cities of Brazil called Comer & Beber (Eat & Drink).  In 2011 there were 20 separate editions published, from Porto Alegre in the far south of Brazil to Manaus in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, and from 50-year-old Brasília to almost 500 year old Salvador. In each edition, the best in the city are honored in three major categories (restaurants, bars, and snacks) and many separate sub-categories, such as the best Italian restaurant, the best Brazilian restaurant, the best seafood, the best steak, etc. For each edition, the jury also chooses a "chef of the year" for the city.

Being included in the list of Veja's best is considered a high honor, and recipients in each category receive a wall-plaque indicating their status. The plaque is almost always prominently displayed somewhere near the entrance of the establishment, as a notification to potential customers, and the most highly honored restaurants often have a wallful of plaques from previous years.

In Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, and the spiritual home of the Afro-Brazilian cuisine of Bahia, one of the most coveted honors is to be voted the best maker of acarajé in the city. Acarajé, a delicious and addictive street food, is to Salvador what the coney island hot dog is to New York - a culinary icon for the culture of Bahia. It's also Bahia's collective Proustian madeleine - acarajé's utterly unique taste and aroma are potent emotional reminders of all that Bahia is, and the first bite of a piping-hot acarajé for a Bahian returning from a time away, or for a tourist coming back to Salvador for a second or fifth or fifteenth time is a gustatory key to unlocking memories of of previous times in the capital.

By law, acarajé must be sold in the traditional manner, by a woman dressed with at least some reverence to traditional Bahian dress, and cooked on site on the sidewalk, in a square or in a park. The way acarajé is sold has been enshrined as part of Brazil's immaterial cultural patrimony, and the sale of acarajé by baianas (as these women are called) even has it's own national day of celebration.

In it's 2011-2012 edition, Veja's jurors for Salvador, who all live in that city, chose the acarajé cooked and sold by Jaciara de Jesus Santos, known to all as simply Cira, as the best in Salvador. In its guide, Veja justified its choice of Cira this way (translated by Flavors of Brazil):

Around 10 in the morning, when the dendê oil is just beginning to be heated up, the first clients of the day have already begun to position themselves around the tabuleiro (a small tray to hold all the ingredients required to prepare acarajé) that Jaciara de Jesus Santos, or Cira, inherited from her mother more than forty years ago in Itapuã. From lunchtime on, especially on weekends, customer traffic increases and the line-up lengthens, but no one seems bothered by the wait. The wait, in fact, is part of the whole experience for residents of Salvador and for tourists, who not uncommonly are already on the way to the airport and who stop to carry to a far-away relative or friend the best acarajé in Salvador, according to Veja's jury. With a texture that is crunchy on the outside and light and fluffy inside, Cira's  fritter made from black-eyed pea flour adds generous complements of flavor-balanced vatapá, chopped green tomato salad, and if the customer wishes, a large portion of reconstituted dried shrimp. An acarajé costs R$4 (USD $2.50) or R$5 (USD $3) if you wish to add the shrimp. As well as acarajé, Cira sells bolo de estudante ("students' cake) for $R2.50 and cocada sweets for R$3. From Friday through Sunday, the presence of Cira herself is guaranteed. Her daughter Jussara and granddaughter Aline are in charge of Cira's two other locations, at Largo da Mariquita and in Lauro de Freitas, respectively.

Cira's stand is located on Rua Aristides Milton (no number) in the seaside district of Itapuã, very close to Salvador's International Airport. If you arrive in Salvador by plane, you can make Cira's acarajé your first bite of Bahia, and before you fly away, you can repeat the procedure on the way to the airport. You'll not forget it, nor her.

4 comments:

  1. I've had the acaraje at her Largo da Mariquita location, and it is pretty darn good! And the best thing about lots of people waiting in line is that the acaraje sempre sai quente!

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  2. I had acaraje couple of months back at hippie fair in ipanema (rio de janeiro) as i was tld it was one of the spiceiest foood you get in brazil. I felt the ladies finger they added to it spoiled the taste and overall feel and found it a bit bland! Maybe i should have asked abou adding more pimenta.. BUt are you serious about the law for having to wear traditional dress to be able to sell it??

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  3. Thanks for the confirmation of the quality of Cira's acarajé. You're right that the line-up is a benefit as it assures hot acarajé. There's nothing less appetizing than acarajé that's only warm. There's a baiana here in Fortaleza that's so popular that she hands out numbers just like they do in the banks in Brazil so no one gets ahead in the line.

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  4. Vim - I've found that if you're not a native Brazilian, acarajé vendors are reluctant to add much pimenta to their wares. If you want your acarajé to be spicy, as it should be, you really have to insist, or they'll make it wimpy. As for the lady fingers (okra in North American English, quiabo in Portuguese) it sounds like your acarajé had some caruru, which is made with okra, added. In my experience adding vatapa is more common, but caruru is an authentic Bahian dish, so it's certainly possible. By the way, I remember reading about the law (or regulation) about traditional dress for vendors of acarajé, but can't put my hand on the source now. I'll continue to look for you, though.

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