Hoboken chef Maricel Presilla has been someone I’ve been eagerly trying to meet for several years. Actually, it all started when I was thumbing through the December 2007 issue of Saveur Magazine and came across the article she penned, Food of the Gods.
Her food commentary was a refreshing look at Salvador da Bahia’s (Brazil) vibrant cuisine which is an “expression of the region’s rich spiritual life.” Salvador, the city of three million, lies one thousand miles north of Rio de Janeiro, is the heart and soul of Brazil’s black population.
Hundreds of years ago, Salvador and so many European territories enjoyed great economic prosperity due to free African labor. According to chef Presilla, “In the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of Africans were moved through the port of Salvador to be put to work on the vast sugarcane plantations…” She adds, “Some were Bantu tribes people from central and southern Africa: others came from the Yoruba kingdoms of West Africa and carried with them a complex spiritual system based on a belief in divinities (called orixás in Portuguese) that were endowed with highly specific powers and personalities. Though many slaves converted to Catholicism, they often retained the core aspects of their ancestral religion, namely, their allegiance to the orixás. Eventually, the mingling of these belief systems gave rise in Bahia to Candomblé, a religion that continues to be practiced by millions of Brazilians today.”
Saveur, the ultimate foodie magazine, devoted 14 pages to the article. Chef Presilla’s visit to Salvador and quest to immerse herself in authentic Bahian cuisine uncovers an interesting connection – the bond between the secular and the sacred. She writes,“Feasting is an essential part of Candomblé and is linked with the tradition of offering food to the orixás who are believed to have well-defined cravings. For example, Oxala, Candomblés, supreme, Zeus-like god, prefers plain, unsalted white rice; Oxum, the sensual Aphrodite-like goddess who rules the rivers, has a predilection for more-seasoned dishes, such as xinxim de galinha, a chicken stew made with dendê oil; and Iansã the female thunder goddess, demands acarajé” (deep fried fritters made from black eyed peas). Read more