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On freedom and independence: Akara and Acarajé

By Ozoz Sokoh   |   01 October 2016   |   4:30 pm

_DSC1210Freedom. The act and sometimes art of being unfettered, unchained. Act – in defiance, art- in spite of bounds and cords.

Akara. Nigeria. Born free.
Acarajé . Brazil. Made free.

Freedom. And independence – both of which have meaning even when you’re not in chains. If you’ve ever been homesick, ever longed for the heat and chaos of Yellow Lagos, for correct Jollof Rice even in the order of The Abroad, then you know what Freedom means. And how desperate one can be to procure it.

In the 19th century, slaves of Yoruba heritage were torn from homelands and taken across stormy seas to Bahia on Brazil’s north-eastern coast. Some were sold for as little as mirrors – looking glasses, man’s eternal fascination at ‘looking down the rabbit hole of self’; others traded in for gin & guns. The palm trees must have looked the same, the sand on the beaches would have crunched beneath aching and beaten feet and yet these men, women, children with bodies’ captive and new identities foisted found freedom for their souls by reimagining many things, like food from home.

Homesickness creates longing in ways you sometimes cannot speak about.

My connection with the discovery of Akara and Acarajé is strong. Working in The Netherlands in 2009, writing about food became a way to remember and celebrate home – even the things I disliked about it. In my homesickness, I forced myself to remember the things I missed most. There was also my desire to raise children who would spend their formative years abroad to recognise the pungent scents of Iru, locust beans and crayfish and to delight in the bright orange of Jollof rice. I would read and write about food culture, history and similarities between Nigerian and global cuisines, and it would ease some of the pain inside.

One evening, I went out for a Rijstafel, ‘Rice Table’ at an Indonesian restaurant in The Hague with colleagues. This elaborate Dutch-adapted Indonesian meal of numerous side dishes in small portions, accompanied by rice provided the perfect backdrop for conversations around fusion cuisine and ‘foods from home’. Santiago, from Brazil began to describe a bean fritter he longed for. I listened intently; puzzled by the minute till I could hold it no longer:

‘That’s Akara. That’s what we call it in Nigeria.’
‘Yes. I know’. He smiled.
‘We call it Acarajé in Bahia. The slaves who came from Africa brought it with them’.

Though he said Africa, I knew the slaves had to be Nigerian, specifically from the south east (Igbo) and south west (Yoruba) for in the north, it is called ‘Kosai’. This fritter, somewhat resembling falafels but made of skinned and pureed black-eyed beans, onions and chili was popular at home and on the streets in Nigeria. This was when food and its significance changed for me.

The slaves left friends and family behind but not the memories of food. To comfort themselves, they turned Akara into Acarajé, a form of worship and the special food of Iansã – warrior goddess (of wind & of things that don’t last forever) and wife of Xango (Yoruba, Sango, giver of Fire and Thunder in Candomblé – the Afro-Brazilian religion).
Hope. Abundant hope.

For the longest of times, the name Acarajé puzzled me. Where did it come from? Was it a contraction of Yoruba words? Of the noun ‘Akara’ and the verb ‘Je’,’to eat’?

There are two possibilities: one that Acarajé relates to Akara from Ijesha – a Yoruba sub-ethnic group, from the city and historic state of Ilesha. Akara Ijesha is made from a thicker paste (compared with regular Akara). The fritters are large – palm sized and traditionally fried in Epo Pupa, palm oil. It is fried till it acquires a crusty, crunchy exterior; two that it comes from ‘E wa ra Akara je’ – ‘Come and buy Akara to eat’, how a reader of my Kitchen Butterfly blogs says it is advertised in her south western hometown of Ogbomoso where it is also fried in palm oil.

Regardless of the etymology, Acarajé reigns supreme in Bahia. In 2004, the art and significance was recognized as being ‘of national immaterial treasure’ by IPHAN, Institute do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional. Since 2010,the Official Diary of the Brazilian Republic has established a day of commemoration – November 25 as the National Day of Baianas Selling Acarajé.

On Brazilian streets, Acarajé is mostly sold by baianas – daughters of Iansã who gather in the afternoons and evenings to cook. Turbaned and clad in white lace and copper, they set up tabuleiros – street-side tables for their wares. Once deep-fried in dendê (palm oil) – only in dendê -, the baianas split each Acarajé in half and stuff it with vatapá – a spicy paste of shrimp, cashews, palm oil; a tomato salad and often, cararu, a condiment starring okro. Embellished, different from how simply and unceremoniously Akara is generally served in Nigeria – often in the mornings and evenings, fried in vegetable or palm oil or a mix and ‘stuffing’ soft bread – best torn by hand, uncorrupted by silver; sometimes accompanying ‘cereal’ – cooked oatmeal or akamu/ogi, pap of fermented corn.

The transformation is amazing and worthy of praise considering the pain and torture from which it stems. Akara to Acarajé – beautifully celebrated in Brazil, where it is first about comida – food that nourishes the spirit and soul and then about alimenta, food that sustains – important distinctions in Brazilian cuisine.

‘Sanduíche é alimenta; Acarajé é comida
Translation: The sandwich is grub, the Acarajé is soul food; Roberto da Matta
(Book, Black Milk: Imagining Slavery in the Visual Cultures of Brazil and America; Marcus Wood, January 1, 2013)’.

Comfort food can bring solace, pleasant reminders of times and places past. I am encouraged by how brave the slaves were, how they celebrated the rich traditions of the past in the midst of new and harsh realities. They gained victory over shackles and banzo, deep depression and intense nostalgia, to create something beautiful, to procure a freedom and travel home ‘by plate’.

Something to think about and celebrate as Nigeria turns 56. Happy Independence Day, 2016.

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