Àkàrà-Acaraje: Unravelling Nigerian-Brazilian Culinary Ties

Imisioluwa Ogunsunlade
January 7, 2023

The transatlantic slave trade created wild cultural coexistence in many places of the world and indeed in the Americas. In fact, entering the 20th century, there was stratification along every racial line in almost every Caribbean nation where there existed white, coloured, brownand black racial group. Thus, it was easy for a system which emphasized skin colour and ethnic groupings to develop. This of course had been made more complex when European countries imported Chinese and Indian labourers to supplement the effort of black peasant workers in the nineteenth century. The relationship between these various ethnic groupings no doubt created social frictions but also cultural assimilations and syncretism in many human facets.

These cultural assimilations have perpetuated their reality in religion, dressing, craft, belief system as well as food. For the latter, it would surprise how much it intersects and intertwinescultures within the African diaspora itself and between the diaspora and the homeland. It would also surprise how much similarity is yet to be uncharted between the African diaspora and the motherland. Here, therefore, we try to draw a nexus between the Brazilian Acaraje and Nigerian Àkàrà.

Àkàrà-Acaraje: Drawing the Nexus

Food remains a biological necessity. However, the ever-evolving nature of man has ensured that new meanings are given to basic customs such that they transcend individuated values to become signifiers. Food interpolates itself into the cultural fabric and plays a large role as a piece of unity in cultural diversity. Therefore, the influences of culinary ties on identities and the diaspora cannot be undermined.

For example, a number of cuisines from the Beautiful Kenyan country seems to be greatly influenced by Indian dishes. This Indian influence is perhaps as a result of the significant migration that occurred when the British East Africa protectorate was created in 1895, which had strong infrastructural links to British India, Bombay specifically. By 1962, the Asian community had firmly rooted itself and, of course, its culture. Unsurprisingly, food as Chapati(flat bread), Samosas (fried dumplings), Githeri stew (usually made from maize and beans) -among others, have been known to feature on Kenyan tables very often.

The Nigerian-Brazilian case is similar to the above. Although in its case the ties have been known to be multiform and this is espoused by the similarities that are not only endemic to food but include religion, language, festivals and even deities. The reputed Osun-Osogbo Nigerian festival, for instance, is a well-recognized festival in Brazil. It is celebrated amidst a lot of fan-fare, with people converging from home and abroad to exalt the river goddess Osun.

Perhaps the celebration of this festival in foreign lands accelerated the inscription of the home site, the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove, as part of the UNESCO world heritage site. On the contrary, the Indian in East Africa, V.s Naipaul once argued, brought India with him and kept it inviolate. Thus, the Kenya-India degree of acculturation can be regarded as rather sparse.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian staple meal known as Àkàrà (Bean Cakes) is called Acaraje in Brazil. Of course, it was transported there by Yoruba slaves through the middle passage. And Like many other properties of the slaves – cerebral and visceral rather than physical – that could not be stripped off and were translocated to the Americas during the cruel sojourn, the name Àkàrà, too, became remixed and reworded just as its pristine recipe may have been remixed and “reworlded”.

However, despite this reworlding, an inevitable product of attempts at revivals of the cultural vestiges of early slave settlers by generations after generations, Àkàrà – nay, Acaraje has retained its base form and its base ingredients: black-eyed beans adorned with onions, pepper and salt, stirred with a whisk and fried in hot oil…Delicious!

Conceivably, Brazilian Acaraje has its own unique accompaniments. According to Bahian cuisine:

Acarajejés are usually eaten accompanied by camarão (small sundried shrimp), pimenta (hot pepper sauce), vatapá(a paste made from sundried shrimp, peanuts, cashews, coconut milk, and dendé), caruru (kind of an okra stew), andsalada (salad: diced tomatoes, onions, and coelantro). These “fillers” can be included or left off at will, and the camarão will cost a little extra.

Thus, cooks and cookery have no doubt changed. Nevertheless, Acaraje remains a meal thatwas once an exclusive rite and right of Nigerians usually served nowadays with pap or soft white bread.

Moreover, there have been debates as to the source of the name Acaraje. But we can easily agree that it is a combination of Àkàrà (bean cake) and “je” or “jìje” both meaning “to eat” in Yoruba language. By the word formation process of blending which we call “ìpàròje” or “ìsúnkì” in Yoruba where two separate words are brought together albeit by removing a syllable, “Àkàrà Jìje” (to eat bean cake) becomes Acaraje. Personally, In Nigeria, I have heard Àkàrà hawkers call out: “e wá ra Àkàrà” which means “come and buy Àkàrà” and at other times, in other climes, I have heard them call out “e je Àkàrà” which means “eat Àkàrà”. The latter appears to be a cheekier way to invite passers-by than the former. The verb “eat” renews buyer’s perception; it has a sense of urgency, of imminence and it remindsthem that the bean cake is ready and the only thing left for them to do is to pick it up and to eat it. Therefore, there are possibilities that “Acaraje” is a brainchild of the pedlar’s act: “e je Àkàrà”.

In any case, Acaraje is a treasured cuisine especially to the Bahians. In fact, Flavours of Brazilconclude that:

In the certification of “Acarajejé as Sold by Bahians” as a national treasure, IPHAN included Acarajejé itself and the way it is prepared, the traditional clothing of the baianas, which is linked to the rituals of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, and the customary layout of accompaniments on the baianas‘ streetside tables, called tabuleiros.

This means that Acaraje, to the Bahians, is part of Brazil’s heritage culture. Amazing! Isn’t it?

Unfortunately, back at home, Àkàrà is not as celebrated like it is in the said diaspora. Of course, as corners divulge into other corners in the countryside, you would find women on their little stools frying Àkàrà and displaying succulent loaves of bread beside. You would find both old and young lined up to get their own share of the cake. The people relish it. In the suburbs also, frying pans are no strangers to this meal. Its ability to be easily packed and quickly made make it a proper breakfast option for both children and husbands leaving earlyfor work. On many Sunday mornings, too, Àkàrà is often a staple. Still, there are possibilities and opportunities to elate the place of Àkàrà to an item of cultural significance like it is in faraway brazil.

Take a minute to think about how a food that was once the property of Nigerian slaves is now an item of heritage in a foreign land. By so doing, the irony no doubt inscribes itself in the mind that in that same Nigeria, Àkàrà is nothing close to harnessing its potential as a fertile site of heritage and treasure. This calls for more strategic planning and deliberate efforts by the African governments as a whole.

On the bright side, Acaraje contributes to a lived experience of an entire people. It has successfully traversed the culinary diaspora space, navigating through time, space and struggle to play a practical role as a migrant’s traditional food in a foreign land, to become a historical symbol as well as a marker of identity. Acaraje enshrouds the stories and past of a people that once were, a people once forcefully carted away from their paradise on earth.

From its crisp corners, the soft core and the crunchy crust, Acaraje – Àkàrà – goes beyond a biological necessity. It is, as Apollo Covington would call it, a “legacy from a home far from here…connecting us back to our home, our roots.

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