Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and, as I look around the aisles of the Shell gas station convenience store, I realize how hungry I am. There’s no shortage of tantalizing chocolate bars and potato chips on display here in the Pituba neighborhood of Salvador, Brazil, but I gravitate towards the multicolored label that reads “Amendoim Tipo Japonês” in bold letters.
The name of the snack translates from Portuguese into “peanut-type Japanese,” but to anyone who has spent enough time in Hawai‘i, this is the unmistakable crack seed staple known as iso peanut. I purchase a pack, savor its gloriously familiar flavor and go on my satiated way.
Much has been written in the Herald about Brazil’s 1.5 million residents with Japanese heritage, but the majority of those nikkei live in São Paulo, over 1,200 miles away. Salvador, the first colonial capital of Brazil and onetime epicenter of the slave trade, is, undoubtedly, the modern-day hub of Afro-Brazilian culture. But within this remarkable, historic city located in the northeastern state of Bahia, there is much more to the epicurean presence of Japanese cuisine than a simple bag of iso peanuts.
Salvador’s Japanese cuisine, while certainly a treat, is hardly a novelty. Rather, it’s been integrated into the lifeblood of the city, just as Japanese Brazilians have established themselves throughout the country over the past hundred years. A window into Salvador’s Japanese culinary culture is also a peek into the nuanced dynamics of this beautiful, abrasive and, ultimately, unforgettable metropolis.
FUSION WITH A VIEW
One of the hippest neighborhoods in Salvador is Rio Vermelho, a bohemian oceanside district boasting numerous art galleries, vibrant street murals and chic watering holes.
Perched over its stunning coastline is Takê, an upscale Japanese fusion restaurant where one can dine a la carte or, more commonly, rodízio (all-you-can-eat) style. Beginning in 2008, its Maceió location in the nearby state of Alagoas earned four straight Japanese restaurant awards from Veja magazine. Takê Salvador, similarly, is widely considered one of the trendiest establishments in this city of 2.9 million people, although getting to its hillside location requires some mental preparation.
The large majority of people who visit Salvador experience the best the city has to offer — picturesque beaches, breathtaking Portuguese colonial architecture and unique traditions from capoeira to Candomblé — without any problems to report. Still, there are some alarming trends that are hard to ignore.
In 2013, Salvador had more homicides — 2,234 — than all but two cities in the world. That same year, the New York Times deemed it Brazil’s “murder capital,” noting its steadily rising crime figures and infamous traffic that “ranks among the most chaotic and violent of any South American city.”
Make no mistake: There is no direct connection between rodízio dining and the city’s crime problem. But there is also no shortage of reminders, from bloody news images to an abundance of anecdotal accounts, that becoming a victim is a realistic possibility for those who do not take the proper precautions. In most cases, that simply means leaving jewelry at home and staying off the streets at night. But there are enough random acts of violence peppered throughout the city that even the most mundane tasks, such as eating dinner at a restaurant, seem to carry added risk.
As Takê is located right on the beach, which is rarely a good place to be at night, I opt to call a taxi service that will deliver me right to the restaurant doorstep. Riding in a taxi is not without its own set of dangers, like trusting drivers who are known to fly down the city’s curved streets with reckless abandon, storming through red lights in the process. But it’s all part of getting from point A to point B in this place of extremes, where a high-speed commute will unveil a confluence of shimmering new gated apartments slowly rising above the expanse of dilapidated concrete facades.
Likewise, Takê has its own striking dichotomy in its interior, as the restaurant’s modern decor gives off an aura of elegance, and its giant flatscreen television, which is showcasing a soccer game featuring the beloved Esporte Clube Bahia squad, serves as an effective kind of equalizer. It feels somewhat odd to be on the brink of gorging myself on gourmet sushi in a restaurant this fancy, but for some reason, the match raging on in the background reassures me that all is well.
The rodízio menu costs about 35 U.S. dollars, but it is worth the price just for the variety of the offerings. In total, there are 90 different options to choose from, ranging from overflowing temaki (hand-rolled) cones to neatly arranged sashimi pieces to cosmopolitan fusion platters — all of which are prepared in an open-view kitchen before being brought directly to the table.
The sushi, particularly the camarão (shrimp) rolls and salmon harumaki (spring rolls), are excellent, both in their freshness and meticulous presentation. Interestingly enough, I find myself drawn to the less exotic fare, like the delicious grilled broccoli and shimeji mushrooms, which are extremely difficult to find in Salvador’s grocery stores. These pieces round out what could have been a very starchy evening and offer a glimpse into the depth and breadth of Takê’s menu.
Of course, no trip to Takê would be complete without partaking in the delightful fusion fare. Highlights include the bold acelga maki com nachos (chard sushi with nachos); Italian-influenced carpaccio de peixe (fish carpaccio); and classic mini churros, which come with Brazilian doce de leite (sweet milk) or doce de goiabada (sweet guava) sauces.
In fact, the churros are so good that I order two servings of them, but even their sweetness is trumped by a 2-0 Bahia victory over Peru’s César Vallejo squad in the third round of the prestigious Copa Sudamericana tournament.
When the final score flashes across the television screen, an extended round of cheers breaks out to celebrate the victory. It’s not easy to top soccer in this country and I find myself joining in the applause. It’s not an empty gesture or even an unusual scene, but as I’m busy acknowledging Bahia, I’d like to think that in my heart I’m also praising Takê for the memorable evening.
SHOPPING FOR MORE SUSHI
If eating sushi in Rio Vermelho is a pastime reserved for special occasions, then the Shopping Salvador mall represents a more common middle-class Brazilian experience.
The sidewalks outside of the complex are a deserted landscape of empty storefronts, office buildings and restaurants, all of which are customarily closed on Sundays. But the inside of the mall is buzzing, not just from the drum of American pop music that is blasting over the sound system, but from the hundreds of shoppers who are looking to escape the sweltering afternoon heat in exchange for a bargain.
In the last decade, over 40 million people have entered the ranks of Brazil’s middle class, which now makes up about 54 percent of the country’s population. Coupled with the rise of credit card transactions — everything from lamps to television sets to clothing can be paid in monthly installments — it is obvious that consumerism is alive and well in this nation of more than 200 million people.
Shopping Salvador, which boasts over 400 stores in the heart of the business district, is thriving as the second largest mall in Bahia. Many customers make regular pilgrimages to purchase luxury brands like Lacoste, Nike, Oakley and Levi’s, but an equal number of people also come to enjoy the food court offerings, which differ markedly from the ubiquitous, meat-heavy botequim (pub) establishments dotting the metropolis.
Whether it’s gourmet Mediterranean eateries or thriving seafood companies or comida por quilo diners, where customers can purchase meals by the kilogram, there is indeed no shortage of diversity from which to choose. I’m immediately attracted to SOHO, a sushi restaurant with simple wooden tables and clean, geometric lines that stands out in its simplicity. It’s the kind of no-frills dining that looks to win over customers with the quality of its cuisine rather than its accoutrements.
SOHO first opened in Salvador in 1998 before expanding to Fortaleza in 2009, Brasilia in 2011 and Miami this past summer. Since its founding, the Salvador-based Bahia Marina location has won 13 consecutive Veja magazine awards in the Japanese restaurant category. While that restaurant’s dramatic harbor views and 180-label wine list grabs most of the attention in the city, SOHO’s Shopping Salvador incarnation is the perfect complement for a long day at the mall.
That’s because the Shopping Salvador location caters to the needs of the hungry, time-constrained consumer through a rodízio conveyor belt dining option. It costs roughly 30 U.S. dollars and the only confusing part is that the sushi pieces are all placed on red, yellow and black plates. Remembering Hawai‘i’s own color-based pricing model, I initially find myself gravitating away from the black plates and towards the yellow ones out of instinct.
Once I realize that platter color has no bearing on my bill, I begin hoarding plates of ebi (shrimp), yakisoba (friend noodles), gyöza (dumplings), tako (octopus), maguro (bluefin tuna), salmon and sunomono (pickled vegetables). The taste of the sushi, which comes off a little on the bland side, pales in comparison to the warm ambiance of the restaurant. However, SOHO’s ceviche, a citrusy, poke-like dish with origins in Peru, captures my heart through its flavorful, but not overpowering taste.
SOHO, additionally, manages to impress me with the creativity of its offerings. For example, the acelga maki especial, which features grilled salmon, chard, cream cheese and Doritos, channels the spirit of the do-it-yourself sushi movement that is taking place in corners of America.
I had my fill of acelga at Takê so I decide to try the hosomaki especial, eight pieces of breaded sushi complete with tuna, cream cheese, a slice of strawberry, unagi (eel) sauce and furikake (seaweed sprinkles). It’s not on the rodízio menu, but this so-called “frutomaki,” with its playful blend of sweet and savory flavors, illuminate the allure of SOHO’s a la carte menu.
Satisfied and charmed, I do what anyone who just ate a mountain of sushi would do at Shopping Salvador: I pay my bill, ride the escalator out of the food court and decide which store to go to next.
THE TASTE OF SPRING
There’s no shortage of Japanese food in Salvador’s towering malls and fine dining circuit, but those options are generally enjoyed by those with an abundance of disposable income. Although Brazil’s middle class has grown considerably in recent years, Bahia remains one of the poorest states in the country. Moreover, it contains the highest percentage of people living in extreme poverty: Roughly 2.4 million people live on less — in many cases, significantly less — than the 30 U.S. dollars it costs to enjoy a meal at SOHO.
And yet, despite these startling figures, Salvador is affectionately known as Brazil’s “capital of happiness,” largely because its residents know how to live in the moment. This manifests itself in numerous free street parties throughout the year, all of which culminate in the city’s world-famous Carnival, when roughly 2 million people take to the streets to recognize the coming of Lent over a period of six days.
The second annual Festival da Primavera, which rings in the emergence of spring, is one such free event. It’s known as a kind of “mini Carnival” in that 60,000 revelers jam themselves into a tiny pocket of Rio Vermelho to take in live music acts, outdoor films, dance performances, art displays and multiple fireworks shows over 34 uninterrupted hours.
Most of the people at the event come to see headlining bands like Rio de Janeiro’s Os Paralamas do Sucesso, one of the biggest Brazilian rock bands of the 1980s; Recife’s Lenine, winner of two Latin Grammy Awards; and Gerônimo, a renowned Bahian singer known for mixing Caribbean melodies with the sounds of ijexá — percussive rhythms that grew out of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion that has a particularly big following in Salvador.
There is even a taiko drumming display by a cultural group known as Wadô at the festival. Founded in 2008, the organization is comprised of about 40 performers who share a passion for Japanese culture and want to see it spread through taiko, yosakoi soran dance, and matsuri, a new Brazilian fusion of J-pop music and bon dance choreography that is grabbing the interest of young people across the country.
All in all, there is no shortage of entertainment at the festival, and no shortage of crowds, for that matter. As the sounds of Lenine’s melodious guitar ring throughout the night air, I decide that it’s time to wade through the ever-growing sea of onlookers to grab a bite to eat.
Food booths from some of Salvador’s most popular restaurants have been set up for the festival, with most of the masses waiting to purchase acarajé, a Bahian specialty made of black-eyed peas, dried shrimp and onions deep fried in dendê (palm) oil. The dish is delicious, but it is known as one of the unhealthiest foods in the world — a single tablespoon of dendê oil contains 7 grams of saturated fat, while one acarajé fritter is said to hover between 1,500 and 2,000 calories.
I opt for Haru Mania, a company known for delivering and catering Japanese food, instead. Ordinarily, they specialize in sashimi, uramaki (sushi with rice on the outside), makizushi (rolled sushi) and temaki fare, but tonight they are simplifying their menu by offering $4 shrimp or vegetable tempura. It’s just a tiny bit healthier than acarajé, but the wait time is significantly shorter.
It takes 30 minutes to get my vegetable tempura order, which is somewhat remarkable, considering that grocery checkout lines in Salvador are time-consuming affairs that can last over an hour. Feeling impressed, I proceed to carve out a spot in the corner of the festival grounds to watch the pulsating crowd.
Late-night events in America tend to be the domain of the young, but it is impossible to categorize the attendance at hand with any one demographic. It’s almost 11 o’clock at night and senior citizens, buoyed by 80-cent cans of Skol beer, dance electric; toddlers, seemingly up way past their bedtime, dine on cheeseburgers under the moonlight and lovers of all ages hold hands on the illuminated promenade.
Before long, all eyes are fixed on the ocean horizon, as a steady stream of fireworks color the night sky. It’s hard not to smile at a fireworks display and this occasion is no different. For a moment, everything seems to stop, or at least slow down in the hazy explosion of green and red and yellow.
I stay and take it all in between intermittent bites of deep-fried carrots and green beans. The delectable crust of the tempura hits the spot and I decide that it’s time to go home. There’s still 22 more hours left in the festival, but I’ve seen and eaten enough. I leave feeling happy, which, thankfully, is something that everyone can dream of in Salvador.
Joe Udell is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. He is currently a freelance journalist who spent six months living in Salvador, Brazil.