Monday, October 8, 2012

On the Road - Salvador - Pt. 4 - Dona Mariquita's Endangered Dishes

Walk down the long narrow one-way street called Rua do Meio in Salvador's happening Rio Vermelho neighborhood, away from the leafy Largo da Mariquita square which is home to Dona Cira's best-in-the-city acarajé stand, and you'll eventually come across a small unprepossessing restaurant named Dona Mariquita. It's on the right as you leave the square and is adorned only with a simple sign with its name. It's easy to miss, or at least it was for our taxi driver on the windy and rainy night we visited Dona Mariquita recently. He had to circle around and try a second time, but armed with the address and a trusty GPS we were able to find it second time around.

Even on a damp, raw evening - a rarity in tropical Salvador - the interior of the restaurant radiated warmth, human warmth. We were greeted with a smile by the entire waitstaff (it was still early, at least by Salvador standards), given our choice of seats and were helped to settle in, candles were lit. and menus were distributed. All of which made the effort we'd made to locate Dona Mariquita on such a stormy night worthwhile. The large room felt indeed like shelter from the storm.

Dona Mariquita had been on our to-do list for Flavors of Brazil's gastronomic tour of Salvador, Bahia ever since we'd begun planning the trip a couple of months ago. It's not the most famous restaurant in the city, nor the most chic. Neither does it perpetually top social network review sites. But with limited time, we'd chosen Dona Mariquita for one of our dinners - our "traditional Bahian cuisine" dinner - for one reason. Just as Diane Fossey provided sanctuary and shelter in Africa for her beloved gorillas, or as ethno-musicologist Alan Lomax recorded folktunes and spirituals as sung by black field hands in the Southern USA before they were lost forever, Dona Mariquita has as its purpose the preservation of "endangered dishes" of traditional Bahian cuisine. We wanted to see and taste the work of this interesting gastronomic project.

Dishes and recipes, as with any other cultural object, don't always have an unlimited lifespan. Whether it's Bahian food we're talking about, or Russian, or Chinese, dishes disappear from kitchens, tables and menus of even the most traditional gastronomic cultures to be replaces by new ones. In medieval Europe, swan was a traditional banquet centerpiece, though it's almost never eaten today. Italian pasta sauces from the same period, before explorers brought tomatoes back from the New World, have been changed radically by the arrival of that fruit. Bahian food is no exception to this rule, and some dishes that were common in earlier times are just not to be found in 21st-century Salvador, or anywhere else in Bahia - except at Dona Mariquita, that is.

The restaurant's "mission statement" which is published in Portuguese on its website says:
Opened on November 23, 2006, Dona Mariquita has as its purpose the preservation of traditional regional dishes of Bahia; dishes once served at fairs and festivals, street food, what you might call "roots food."...
Returning from a voyage to our gastronomic origins, Dona Mariquita has rescued original recipes and ingredients, bringing seafood from the Recôncavo da Bahia (the region surrounding Salvador), as well as seeds and leaves, blending together indigenous, African and countryside
influences in search of the true flavor of our history. (translation by Flavors of Brazil)

Arroz de Hauçá
On the website, there is a very interesting article about the restaurant's efforts to preserve Muslim elements in Bahian culture, an influence that generally goes unnoticed in most discussions of the food of Bahia. Many of the black Africans who were forceably brought from West Africa to Brazil to slave on the colony's sugar plantations and in its mines were Muslims. Over time and under pressure from Catholic owners and authorities, most of these slaves became Christians in Brazil, and their Muslim heritage was lost or hidden. The restaurant features some dishes that can be traced back to Muslim West Africa, dishes like Arroz de Hauçá, variations of which are still common in Africa.

Dishes which are under the restaurant's protection are identified as such on the restuarant's extensive menu, which also features many of the non-endangered jewels of Bahian gastronomy such as Xinxim de Galinha and Moqueca de Peixe. We were unable to sample them all, due to limited time and stomach capacity, but did make sure that our menu choices focused on those dishes that, but for Dona Mariquita's efforts, might have disappeared entirely from Bahia's gastronomic history. Our next post  in this series will focus on these dishes. 

In the meantime, we applaud Dona Mariquita's noble effort and encourage readers of the blog who might be in the neighborhood in the future to do themselves the favor of enjoying the restaurant's unusual dishes while surrporting the preservation of Bahian food history at the same time.


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