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Day 35: Salvador

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With Dadá, the doyenne of Bahian cuisine, selecting fruit for the meal she's making today.
Michael Palin - BrazilBahian cooking is, like Candomblé, a hybrid of African, Portuguese and indigenous influences. Based largely on the abundance of seafood, it has a reputation for being a lot more interesting than the meaty fare that predominates in much of the rest of Brazil. If there is one woman who can claim to personify Bahian cooking it's Aldaci dos Santos, loved, envied, criticized, but known to all as 'Dadá'. From selling snacks on the beach she rose to become a restaurant owner and chef to the famous, including the musician- turned-Culture Minister Gilberto Gil, the hugely popular Salvadorean writer Jorge Amado and Hillary Clinton. Now she has not only opened a second restaurant in Salvador, but is branching out beyond Bahia. There are already some intimations of collateral damage. Two guides both mention her flagship restaurant, Sorriso da Dadá, but one grumbles that 'all has sadly fallen somewhat from grace' and the other warns that 'Dadá has taken her eye off the ball'. None of this seems to have affected Dadá's naturally sunny disposition when we meet up outside the fish market, the Mercado do Peixe, early this morning. Dadá is in her fifties, generously proportioned but not statuesque, dressed in a leopardskin dress with her hair bunched up in a knotted white headscarf. She beams broadly as she introduces me to her daughter Daniela and her grandson Bernardino, about the same age as my two-year-old grandson Wilbur, so we have things beside food to talk about.

Introductions done, Dadá takes me off into the fish market for the first stage of my crash course in Bahian cuisine. She draws admiring glances from the porters. As we go by one of them does an improvised samba for her, and pretty nimble it is too for a man in rubber boots. She's going to show me how to make moqueca, the classic dish of the North-East which I first tried in São Luís. Its origin is thought to be from the Tupinambá, one of the indigenous tribes who were here long before the Europeans and Africans arrived. It's basically a fish stew, so Dadá is on the lookout for a good fleshy redfish – what we would probably call red snapper – and after some careful weighing up and turning over in her hands she selects the ones she wants, and we then go on to audition the prawns. She forensically examines the various grey bucketfuls that are presented to her and, having made her choice, indicates to me that the time has come for my co-operation. She points at the bulging bags of prawns, and though she doesn't speak much English, the body language says it all.

'You carry those two.'

There's something about Dadá that discourages argument, so I pick up the bags – how can prawns be this heavy? – and make off after her to a stall on the other side of the white-enamelled hall, where she's casting a critical eye over the caranguejo, crabs. Not the pink and red, freshly dressed crab that were such a treat on my summer holidays in Norfolk, but a string of crabs all covered in thick black mud as if just pulled from a riverbed.

'We cook them in boiling water. It's a tradition in Salvador. In a lot of bars they serve them with beer.'

Pausing only to add mussels, lambretas, to the ingredients, Dadá, running a gauntlet of lustful glances, sails serenely out of the fish market with her prawn- and crab-carrying assistant in hot pursuit. Our next stop is the main food market of Salvador, called after a saint of course. The Mercado de São Joaquim.

This is a big, wonderful rambling mess of a place populated by all humanity. Dadá, fearful of losing me in the crowd, takes me by the hand and weaves me through the narrow alleyways, dodging loads of potatoes, men with parts of pig across their shoulders, and the odd motorbike. There are no shopping trolleys in São Joaquim. Instead they have sharp-edged steel trailers dragged around by porters whom you can hire by the hour. There's clearly a skill to manoeuvring through this clattering, noisy throng, and despite all the various obstacles, everyone just manages to get out of everyone else's way.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 35: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 152

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