In honor of the World Cup currently being held in Brazil, we’re bringing you a traditional Brazilian dish as unique as the people that fill this vibrant country. The dish, called vatapá, is from the Bahia state in Brazil, a region on the Atlantic coast where the first European landed in 1500 and claimed Brazil for Portugal. It is a land rich in culture and history and its people are proud not only of their Brazilian nationality, but specifically of their Bahian heritage.
It is believed that indigenous people inhabited the area of Brazil up to 8,000 years ago. The people to the west of the Andes Mountains lived in settlements where they grew their own food as well as fished and hunted. To the east of the Andes, people lived semi-nomadic lives, traveling to follow food and water. Neither group left behind any form of written history or architecture and so there is very little known about these original Brazilians, but many of the tribes still living in Brazil today trace their roots back to these ancient times.
On April 22, 1500, a Portuguese navigator named Pedro Álvares Cabral landed on what he called the “Island of the True Cross.” He officially claimed it for Portugal. The land would eventually take its name from a type of dyewood, pau-brasil, which grows there. It is said that Cabral made an effort to treat the indigenous people of Brazil with kindness, but the over 2,000 tribes were considered uncivilized and the colonists sought to end their un-Christian ways and practices of cannibalism and tribal warfare. Unfortunately, as with so many other stories of colonization and imperialization, the settlers brought with them diseases that the native people were unable to combat. It is difficult to know how many tribes were completely annihilated after the Europeans arrived.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese began growing sugarcane on plantations along the northeast coast of Brazil. The landowners attempted to make slaves out of the native Brazilians, but found this to be a difficult task. Instead, they turned to Africa and began importing slaves much like their European neighbors to the north. Unlike their northern neighbors, however, the Portuguese settlers frequently married both Africans and native Brazilians. Also, the natives themselves would often marry Africans. There was intermingling among the different groups to a degree not seen anywhere else. “Most Brazilians possess some combination of European, African, Amerindian, Asian, and Middle Eastern lineage, and this multiplicity of cultural legacies is a notable feature of current Brazilian culture.”
Not surprisingly, the cuisine of modern Brazil was greatly affected by the intermingling of different cultures. Vatapá is a perfect example of this fusion. The name vatapá comes from Yoruba, an African language, and means “a spicy seafood paste.” However, the dish is not found in modern African cuisine, leading to the supposition that it was developed in Brazil. There are many different variations, but several ingredients are always included: stale bread, coconut milk, ground nuts and dried shrimp. Two distinct types of vatapá have emerged. The first is a homogenous paste that is used to fill a Bahian bean fritter and the second is a less homogenous, thick sauce filled with chunks of the various ingredients. The recipe we’re bringing you today is closer to the latter version. It can be eaten as a main or side dish.
So cook up some vatapá and invite your friends over for a night of food and football (soccer for us Americans)!
Fish and Shrimp Stew: Vatapa de Peixe e Camarao
*Recipe courtesy of the Food Network.
Total time: 1 hr, 25 minutes
- 1 cup of dried shrimp
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 cups of chopped onion
- 1/2 cup of ground, toasted cashew nuts
- 1/2 cup of ground, toasted blanched almonds
- 1 tablespoon of minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon of minced ginger
- 1 tablespoon of minced, seeded red chile peppers
- 4 cups of fish or shrimp stock
- 1 (14-ounce) can of coconut milk
- 2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice
- 1 pound of sea bass fillets or other firm white fish fillets, cut into 2-inch cubes
- 1 pound of shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup of chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 6 lime wedges, for garnish
- Steamed long grain white rice, accompaniment
- Soak the dried shrimp in warm water to cover for 15 minutes. Drain, then puree in a blender or food processor. Set aside.
- Heat a Dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Saute the onions, stirring often, until soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the pureed shrimp and cook for 2 minutes. Add the nuts, garlic, ginger and peppers and cook, stirring often, for 1 minute. Add the stock, coconut milk and lime juice and cook until reduced by 1/2, about 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the fish and simmer until the fish is almost cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the shrimp and simmer until cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes. Season, to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir in 1/4 cup cilantro and remove from the heat.
- Arrange a scoop of rice in the center of 6 large plates or soup bowls. Ladle the stew over the rice and garnish with the remaining 1/4 cup chopped cilantro. Place 1 lime wedge on each plate and serve immediately.
 Brazil History. (n.d.). Brazil History. Retrieved June 11, 2014, from http://www.brazil.org.za/history.html#.U5iv2PldWSo
 Calmon, P. (n.d.). Pedro Alvares Cabral (Portuguese explorer). Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved June 11, 2014, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/87709/Pedro-Alvares-Cabral
 Flavors of Brazil: A Tale of Two Dishes – Vatapá. (n.d.). Flavors of Brazil: A Tale of Two Dishes – Vatapá. Retrieved June 11, 2014, from http://flavorsofbrazil.blogspot.com/2010/11/tale-of-two-dishes-vatapa.html