Salvador’s Afro-Brazilian Culinary Culture Is Thriving — Here's Where to Go

This city in Brazil is a cultural and culinary epicenter of the Afro-Brazilian community. Kayla Stewart meets the chefs who are exploring and advocating for their heritage—in the most delicious way.

Two photos from Roma Negra restaurant in Salvador, Brazil, including the restaurant entrance, and a dish served in a leaf
From left: The festive exterior of Roma Negra; the restaurant’s mulenga. Photo:

Wendel Assis and Maria Mango

When I arrived at my hotel after landing in Salvador, I was greeted with three creamy, perfectly sweet pieces of cocada. An accompanying note shared the history of the coconut confection: enslaved Africans, who were forcibly transported to Brazil from the early 16th to the late 19th centuries, would make cocada at night, the only time they had to themselves. They brought some lightness to their desolate living conditions through food, grating the coconut and mixing it with brown sugar and water.

Over time, the dessert has taken on new life through innovations like refined sugars and the addition of fruits and nuts. But even at the luxe Hotel Fasano Salvador (doubles from $390), its humble story has been preserved. As I savored a guava-filled cocada, I looked out of my guest-room window toward the shores where the first enslaved Africans touched what is today Brazilian land. Along with sadness and disgust at what had happened there, I felt a mixture of sweetness and pride. The moment was an immediate reminder that Black food, across the world, is bound to the story of the transatlantic slave trade, but also the remarkable ingenuity and resilience of displaced Africans.

Palm trees and houses along the coast of Salvador, Brazil
A view of the Baía de Todos os Santos, in Salvador, Brazil.

Wendel Assis and Maria Mango

There's a steady, pulsing rhythm in Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia. The city is at once approachable and gritty, devout and sensual, historic and infinite. Something seductive is expressed by throbbing drums, spirited dancers, and revelers cheering it all on. But the food? The food is the passion.

As I took in the sounds and scents of the city, I found myself, as usual, drawn to the restaurants. On my first night, I sat down with my wonderful guide and translator, Eliabe Freitas, and anthropologist Monique Lemos at Roma Negra (entrées $6–$16), where tracks by Nego Alvaro and Alicia Keys bounced around the high-ceilinged space. One wall was covered in black-and-white photographs: the many faces of Black Brazil.

An all-Black staff helmed by chef Severina Santana delivered dish after remarkable dish. Bolinhos de aratu,or crab fritters, were paired with a delicate jam of umbu, a sweet, plumlike native fruit. For the main course, a hefty serving of mulenga, a preparation so sacred that it’s used as an offering (with the name efó) to the eldest of the gods in candomblé—a religion with West African roots that plays a significant role in Afro-Brazilian food culture. Mulenga is indeed divine: onions are stir-fried in palm oil, followed by spinach, coconut milk, peanut butter, cashews, and castanha do pará (Brazil nut), then a bit of ginger and fresh shrimp paste. Finally, the creamy medley is then served inside a banana leaf with coconut-milk rice.

chef Severina Santana of Roma Negra restaurant in Brazil
Chef Severina Santana of Roma Negra.

Wendel Assis and Maria Mango

Santana, shy yet remarkably talented, sees her restaurant as an homage to her roots—and to the African people who have shaped Bahia and the country as a whole. The Afro-Brazilian community has been ignored, even vilified; in fact, their history is not taught in many Brazilian schools. “We want to rescue our heritage,” she told me. “I want to highlight each and every dish.”

Santana explained that cassava, coconut milk, and azeite de dendê — a thick, red-orange oil derived from the dendezeiro palm — are found in nearly every Afro-Brazilian recipe, and also in the cuisines of Central and West Africa. The following morning she invited me into her kitchen, where she used all three ingredients to prepare mulenga and a Brazilian interpretation of jambalaya, the New Orleans favorite that’s been similarly shaped by slavery and cross-cultural exchange. Hers was an earthier, more fragrant version, with the addition of corn, a touch of clove, and a red rice cultivated in Brazil. One spoonful reminded me that, while our histories are slightly different, Black food across the diaspora often converges and redefines itself in inspiring ways.

Pair of photos from Salvador, Brazil, showing a restaurant entrance and chef Lili Almeida in her home kitchen
From left: The entrance to Roma Negra, in Pelourinho, Salvador’s “old town”; chef and educator Lili Almeida, whose popular Instagram account is dedicated to Afro-Brazilian cooking.

Wendel Assis and Maria Mango

Salvador, Brazil's, first capital, played a critical role in the transatlantic slave trade. While they were brutally colonizing the country’s Indigenous people, the Portuguese also captured about 5 million Africans, many of whom came through the port that is still in use in Salvador. After slavery was outlawed in 1888, many formerly enslaved people remained in Bahia; in Salvador, 80 percent of the population has African ancestry.

Freitas and I discussed this history the following night at Malembe, which both locals and travelers had told me was a must-visit. Owned by four Black women — Mônica Tavares, Milena Moraes, Diana Rosa, and Daiane Menezes — it’s located in Pelourinho, a brightly colored neighborhood that sits high above the rest of the city. Named for the whipping post that once stood near a slave-trading market, Pelourinho is now Salvador’s “old town” and the center of its Afro-Brazilian community.

“Malembe is what it is because we thought of the community,” said Menezes, co-owner and the drinks director, who’s regarded as the best bartender in the city. As we spoke about the restaurant, Menezes crafted us glasses of badauê, which she made with Aperol, passion fruit, ginger, and cachaça. Her combined love of cocktails and culture was clear in one sip. “We wanted Black people to feel represented, comfortable, and at home in a restaurant,” Menezes told me. “That doesn’t happen much here.”

Just as Afro-Brazilian history is largely overlooked, the cuisine, too, is often undervalued in Brazil or appropriated by white chefs. For example, the seafood stew moqueca (a word with Bantu origins) is a staple on most menus, but its African roots are rarely acknowledged. And in Brazil, Black women — who are almost solely responsible for the preservation and proliferation of this food — are often targets of racism and sexism, and face greater challenges with business ownership and advancing in the industry.

Two photos from Malembe restaurant in Brazil, one showing a bartender making a cocktail, and one showing artwork above the bar
From left: Daiane Menezes mixing a cocktail at Malembe; artwork on display above the bar.

Wendel Assis and Maria Mango

Despite these odds, Malembe is thriving. The four women behind it have made their restaurant into a safe space for Black and queer Brazilians, and the wood-paneled interior is decorated with Brazilian and Angolan art. (One of the many usages of malembe comes from the Bantu language Kikongo, spoken in Angola and other neighboring countries, where it means “slow.”) Up-and-coming musicians regularly take the stage at the front of the dining room.

Bahia native José Machado, Malembe’s chef at the time, crafted a robust dinner of chicken hearts with farofa (toasted cassava flour); bolinhos de feijoada (croquettes filled with bean-and-meat stew); and my favorite dish of the evening, bobó de camarão, a shrimp-and-cassava stew that closely resembles the crawfish étouffée of southern Louisiana. “It’s about ancestry,” Machado told me. “For me, it’s important to cook this food for guests so they don’t lose this connection to our roots.”

Dona Suzana, an icon of Bahian food, was among the first to reclaim these roots at her globally recognized Ré Restaurante Dona Suzana, whose name is a cheeky nod to her signature stutter. At the seaside restaurant, just steps from her home, the chef prepares daily-caught fish with views of the sparkling bay. When Freitas and I arrived, we were drenched from the Brazilian heat. Still, we practically inhaled our moqueca, which Suzana served bubbling hot in a terra-cotta dish with rice, black-eyed peas, and farofa. She often combines African ingredients like these with local seafood—even stingray—and, like many in the culinary community here, sees restaurants as more than just places to get a good meal. They’re also sites of cultural preservation.

Emblematic of this idea is the street-food favorite acarajé. These black-eyed-pea fritters are stuffed with vatapá (a thick paste of shrimp, bread, ground peanuts, coconut milk, dendê oil, and herbs) and caruru (another paste of okra, onion, shrimp, dendê oil, and toasted cashews) and accompanied by generously seasoned shrimp and diced vegetables. Throughout Brazil, acarajé can be found at stands that are immediately identifiable by the women, known colloquially as baianas, who run them.

Approaching the family-owned Acarajé da Dinha, I saw a line of eager customers and four women behind the stand in leopard-print head wraps, painted nails, and bright jewelry. Most recognizable, however, was their all-white attire: the archetypal ensemble of women who observe candomblé, in which acarajé is a ritual food. Freitas explained that women like them help preserve the interplay between Afro-Brazilian religion and cuisine, and are the only Brazilians who should be making and profiting from the sale of this semi-sacred dish.

A seafood stew served at a restaurant in Brazil
The seafood stew moqueca at Ré Restaurante Dona Suzana.

Wendel Assis and Maria Mango

Acarajé is near and dear to Lili Almeida, whose relatable cooking demonstrations and willingness to call out racism in the industry have made her a social media star. Her following on Instagram jumped from 13,000 to more than 500,000 during the pandemic. “Brazilian food is really a mix of Indigenous and African food,” she explained when we met at a juice spot overlooking the coast. “But often white chefs don’t want to acknowledge that truth.” These days, Almeida cooks with and interviews industry figures across the country to study the fundamental role of African foodways on the cuisine. As she put it, “no one can ever replicate what we’ve created for Brazil.”

My week in Salvador was filled with fantastic dishes, long walks, and, most importantly, plenty of reflection. Much of my work as a travel journalist relies on observation—removing myself from the narrative and casting light on my subjects. But an Instagram message from Menezes ahead of my flight home reminded me that rarely are Black reporters detached from the story. Instead, we can become messengers, characters of our own.

“I believe that we Black people have to tell our story ourselves,” she wrote to me. “We are protagonists.”

A version of this story first appeared in the September 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Strength and Flavor."


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