As a child, I have fond memories of being in the kitchen with my dad, sifting through dried black-eyed beans in preparation of beans stew. Black-eyed beans are a popular pulse consumed in both Nigeria and Brazil my dad would often prepare whilst recounting stories of our ancestors.
Both sides of his family - the Alakijas and Bamgboses - were prominent returnee families in Lagos, Nigeria who had repatriated ‘home’ to West Africa when slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888; yet continued to travel back and forth between the two continents with a small contingent settling in Salvador, Brazil.
My dad was born in Lagos (Nigeria), with his family based in what is called the Brazilian Quarters of the city – an area where many returnee families settled. He spent the last 30 years of his life in England but travelled to Nigeria often. Dad often told my siblings and me about our family’s rich and varied history. Specifically in relation to our Brazilian family history. He told us that when slavery was abolished, some of our ancestors became merchants travelling back and forth – trading between the old and new worlds. After some time, most of them returned and settled in Lagos, Nigeria and Freetown, Sierra Leone becoming successful in various fields such as business, medicine and law. However, they never forgot their Brazilian connections.
One of the ways the returnees remembered their past and honoured their enslaved ancestors was through the annual carnival in Lagos. Established by returnee families, the carnival enabled them to commemorate and celebrate their emancipation from slavery. This was a big deal for my dad who often tried to return home for these celebrations. My dad found numerous ways to honour and celebrate his heritage as a Nigerian, Sierra Leonean with Afro Brazilian connections, and he did this usually through food.
He was a brilliant cook and used to cook dishes such as ‘Frejon’, a coconut beans soup made with Black-eyed beans, widely eaten at Easter among descendants of returnee families who had ‘come home’ from the Americas (Brazil, Cuba and the Caribbean) to West Africa.
He would also make other bean-based dishes such as ‘moin moin’ – a steam bean cake cooked in banana leaves and beans stew cooked in a rich tomato sauce made of palm oil, both dishes that I tasted in Salvador, Brazil.
Inspired by stories from my Dad, in 2017, I embarked on a trip of a lifetime to Salvador de Bahia in his honour. I promised my Dad 3 things in the last few weeks of his life, and one of them was to fulfil his and mines long-held dream of meeting distant relatives who were in Brazil because of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
2 years after his death, I made the trip of a lifetime and food was at the heart of this journey.
For many enslaved West Africans, food was one of the important ways they remembered home/their culture and it was also important to some of their religious practices.
For example, people from the Yoruba tribe, where my dad originated from, made up the majority of enslaved West Africans to North-Eastern Brazil, namely Salvador State, and bean cakes were an important part of their Orisha worship which they transported with them along with a number of other things.
When I arrived in Salvador State I was stunned by the rich preservation of African heritage. It felt like home. I grew up in South London and only travelled to Nigeria once for a month with my dad in my 20s.
However, so many parts of Salvador reminded me of Lagos, the former capital city of Nigeria and the city of my father’s birth— from the people to the music, the arts and culture to the Portuguese influenced colonial style architecture. But probably most striking of all was the similarity in cuisine.
‘Akara / Acarajé’ - savoury bean cakes fried in palm oil, was another bean-based dish I had eaten on a few occasions as a child. I soon found out these were a popular and culturally significant dish in Salvador as well.
On my first night in Salvador, I walked along the pier and immediately smelt the familiar, pungent scent of palm oil wafting along with the sea breeze. Seeking out the origin of the smell, I found my first taste of 'home', an Acarajé stall.
‘Acarajé / Akara’ was transported to Brazil by enslaved West Africans and is now a popular street food typically sold
by Baianas—Black women who are dressed in white creole style clothing with colourful head wraps, who have since become an important cultural symbol of Bahia's rich West African heritage.
Plopping myself down along the beachfront, I indulged in my first Brazilian Acarajé and it was so delicious. The bean cakes are fried in front of you in a calorific vat of palm oil known as Dende along with sliced onion added for flavour. They are then cut in half and filled with various fillings like shrimp (camarao in Brazilian Portuguese), okra (caruru in Brazilian Portuguese), ’vatapa’ - a dish made with day-old bread, onions, palm oil, ginger and chilli accompanied by a mini salad.
Besides being a popular street food in Brazil, Acarajé also plays an important role in the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomble. Bean cakes are one of the main foods offered to the Orishas, a pantheon of deities originating from the Nigerian Yoruba tradition. Similarly, it also continues to be culturally significant in Yoruba culture today as it is cooked and eaten 40 days after the death/burial of a loved one— a custom we observed in honour of my dad.
The two highlights of my trip happened to be around food and family. The first appointment was a dinner date with the Alakija family, the first half of my Dad’s heritage, who cooked an absolute feast and were so kind and warm-hearted, welcoming a virtual stranger into their home.
They are a big family living in 2 apartments adjacent to each other— my Aunty Geonalda lives in one with her family, and her mother lives next door, well into her 90s and sharp as a razor.
Dinner time was an incredibly surreal moment as this amazing food lovingly laid out before me, which was supposedly typical Bahian food was largely Nigerian. I actually went through all the dishes that I could recognise naming them in Yoruba to my distant relatives as they repeated them back with their Yoruba; we were all stunned at just how many similarities there were!
The range of dishes included Okra stew, seasoned shrimp, fried plantain (dodo in Yoruba), Acarajé / Akara, stewed Beans cooked in palm oil (Ewa in Yoruba), chicken stew, vatapa and rice. There were only 2-3 dishes which I didn't recognise as being of Nigerian origin including a tasty, traditional Bahian pepper sauce accompaniment made of chopped parsley, fresh tomatoes, vinegar and other ingredients, a great addition for those who love spicy food.
Palm oil was the common ingredient in most of the dishes, which I came to realise had the same level of reverence in Bahian cuisine as it does in Nigerian cookery. A staple product in both my grandmothers' kitchens, it was so fascinating to see it have such pride of place in Salvador.
For example, Fridays in Salvador are known as Dende days, when restaurants will whip up traditional Bahian cuisine - food mainly cooked with palm oil. Similarly, many of the city’s key museums and galleries, have several exhibitions/installations dedicated to palm oil's importance.
On the trip, I also met members of the Bamgbose family, who have a very interesting connection to black-eyed beans. One my ancestors, Rodolfo Manoel Martins de Andrade (Bamboxê Obitiko) was a leading figure within the Candomble tradition and Akara is an important dish offered to some of the keyOrishas within it. Such was his influence that he is cited in several papers and history books relating to Afro Brazilian religious practices and cultures.
I met my distant cousin Susana, the great, great, great, granddaughter of Bamboxê Obitiko and her partner who took me to their favourite, family-run restaurant. We didn't eat a bean-based dish but instead, they introduced me to the Bahian version of a shepherd's pie— seasoned beef mince but topped with a light, fluffy layer of mashed cassava mixed with cheese, instead of potato, which was very rich in flavour.
The restaurant was a small family-run, business tucked away in Pelourinho – the historic centre of Salvador state and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was deeply moving to visit this place because although it is now a tourist area, there are various sites where the bloodied history of enslaved Africans is still present. From the ports (as it is a port city) to the town square where they were punished and sold now turned into shopping areas, it’s deeply painful and hard to ignore this element of the city’s history despite the colourful and vibrant surroundings.
Yet, amongst the sorrow and tragedy, West African culture is very present and alive. Through the arts (music and performing arts schools) to culinary classes celebrating Bahian cuisine, from museums celebrating Afro-Brazilian history and culture to the city being the home of the popular Afro Brazilian music/percussion group Olodum – the blocos-afro (community groups celebrating African pride) who also featured in Michael Jackson’s 1996 track – They Don’t Really Care About Us (which was filmed in the city too.)
One of the most surreal moments on the trip happened in Pelourinho, I popped into a shop selling artworks and percussion instruments. The man in the shop asked me where I was from. When I told him I was of Nigerian descent, his face lit up and all of a sudden and he burst into ancient Yoruba. It was mind-blowing! He had learnt this growing up from his elders — they had retained this through song and Afro Brazilian religious practices. The level of preservation was astounding.
Overall, the trip was life-affirming in so many ways. I fulfilled a long-held dream, a bucket list moment and it didn’t disappoint. Despite the pain of slavery being the starting point, I found long lost relatives and even with the geographic and time distance (130 odd years later since the abolition of slavery in Brazil), the family connection was instant. I felt such a sense of warmth and belonging that it was overwhelming. I could see family resemblances in myself and several members on both sides of the family to the point we were all stunned.
I can’t wait to see them, in person, in Brazil, and bond over Bahian (secretly Nigerian) cuisine again.