At the Center for Foods of the Americas at the CIA San Antonio, our job is to capture and document the culinary traditions and ingredients that define Latin America’s diverse foodways. Not surprisingly, going to the source is an essential part of this process. During a survey of Brazil’s regional cuisines in 2008, we went to Salvador, Bahia and drove north to the rural hamlet of Imbassaí. We wanted to see firsthand how dendé oil, one of the hallmarks of Afro-Brazilian cuisine, is made.
Dendé oil is actually more common in this corner of Brazil than its native Africa, where it is utilized as a condiment. Here, dendé oil makes its way into almost everything—from acarajé, which are hush-puppy-like fritters, to moquecas, simmering coconut seafood stews that are perfumed with the distinctive red palm oil. The importance given to this African ingredient is a likely consequence of Candomblé, a local religion fusing Catholic and West African rituals that has gods requiring consistent tributes of food to keep them happy and well-satisfied.
In today’s modern society, most people use commercially processed dendé oil, both inside and outside Brazil, but in rural Imbassaí, the locals still take pride in making this iconic ingredient “a mão”—by hand. We visited a local producer of dendé oil whom locals refer to simply as “Bigote,” or the mustache man. We followed Bigote to the fringes of the town, where the fruits from the dendé palm were ripe for harvest. Alternating between his ax and his machete, he cut away layers of spiny palm fronds covering the grape-like fruit perched near the crown. He hit the stem of the fruit pod and orange kernels showered the tropical forest floor.
Bigote said the black points on the ends of the kernels must be removed immediately, as they can ruin the oil during processing.
The first step in preparing the oil included cleaning and then boiling the dendé fruit for approximately 30 minutes, softening the meat for the next step. Pounding the boiled fruit in a wooden crate with a long weathered stick, he separated the fibrous pulp from the seeds, releasing the natural oils of the crimson red dendé fruit. The mashed contents of the crate were emptied into another container and mixed with fresh water. Bigote built a homemade colander by fastening a plastic mesh sack to a bucket with a rubber band. Using a small pitcher, he passed the mixture over the sieve and squeezed the fiber to extract all the moisture. Next, the mixture was brought to a boil over a wood-burning fire and cooked for 20 minutes. Bigote removed the oil from the fire and added cold water—an essential step for attaining the oil’s crimson color. Once the mixture cooled, water rose to the top and the oil was boiled again, turning thick and reddish-orange.