Vatapá, Brazil’s Delicious Shrimp Stew

Vatapa is one of the many signature dishes crafted in Brazil that are enjoyed throughout the world.

Originating in the Bahia region of Brazil, it has cultural ties to the West African slaves brought to the country as early as the 16th century.

Many adaptations of this dish have been created over time, but the traditional version remains one of the most popular staples in northern Brazil to this day. 

Vatapá is a Brazilian seafood stew made of bread, shrimp, coconut milk, finely ground peanuts and palm oil that is mashed into a paste. Traditionally served with rice or as a filling in acarajé fritters, it is often enjoyed as popular Brazilian street food or as an offering in the religion of Candomblé. 

The rest of this article outlines the history of Vatapá and its significance in the religion of Candomblé, as well as some popular adaptations to the dish and notes on the ingredients required to prepare it.

Keep reading to learn all there is to know about this popular Brazilian dish

The History of Vatapá

Sometimes referred to as Brazilian Shrimp Stew, Vatapá is one of the most famous dishes in Brazil.

The recipe originated in the Bahia region of Brazil, located in the Northeastern portion of the country.

This region’s culture is heavily influenced by the West African slaves that were brought there from the 16th to the 19th century. 

Although the roots of the dish came from Africa, it is believed that the original recipe was created directly in Brazil.

This is thought to be true because many of the staple ingredients found in the dish were not readily available in the western regions of the African continent where the slaves came from. 

Vatapá plays an important role in the religion of Candomblé, a hybrid religion that has ties to African religions as well as Roman Catholicism and the religions of the indigenous people of South America. 

The History of Candomblé

Candomblé, also known as “Dance in Honor of the Gods,” is a religion that began in African cultures, particularly in the Yoruba, Bantu, and Fon clans.

Upon arrival to South America, the slaves of these West African regions practiced this religion in secret, eventually evolving the practice to include some beliefs found in Roman Catholicism and those of the indigenous people of Brazil. 

Origins of the Religion

The religion itself was forged as early as the 16th century, but the first temple devoted to it wasn’t erected in Brazil until the 19th century.

The Portuguese settlers of Brazil attempted to convert the slaves they brought over to Catholicism, which resulted in the secret nature of the practice. 

The religion was also kept a secret due to its pagan practices and animal rituals, frowned upon by the settlers in the area.

However, over time the religion gained popularity in South America, particularly in the regions of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela. 

Each of the West African civilizations played a role in creating the modern-day practice of Candomblé, pulling in beliefs and practices from their own cultures.

The Bantu tribes focused on worshipping their ancestors. The Yoruba tribes held a polytheistic view of religion, worshiping multiple gods and deities

Beliefs of Candomblé

Worshippers of Candomblé believe in one supreme being knowns as Olódùmarѐ, as well as 16 other deities, known as Orixas.

Each person who follows the religion has a deity that guides them through life, protecting them and leading them to their destined path. 

Unlike other religions, the focus of Candomblé is not that of good vs. evil. The main belief system is built around fulfilling one’s destiny.

This destiny is determined by an individual after their personal Orixa has possessed them. 

The Importance of Vatapá in Candomblé

Much like Western religious belief systems, those who practice Candomblé believe that those who pass away move on to an afterlife.

This thought process is important to understand because the offerings of food and rituals of dance and other sacrifices are thought to increase a person’s life force, a key pillar in the religion. 

The use of food during the rituals of Candomblé is very important. The food used in the rituals found in this religion is referred to as Comida de Santo, a Portuguese phrase that translates to “saint’s food” in English.

The practice of offering food to deities and gods as a part of worship was brought over from West African culture. 

The ingredients offered represented the best the slaves had to offer, oftentimes things that they wouldn’t normally eat themselves.

This is because it was believed that the better the offering, the greater the life force bestowed upon the person completing the ritual. 

Practicers of Candomblé believe that the things you do contribute to your destiny in life and the afterlife.

Your life force is called your Ase, and as you go through life, there may be things that detract from your Ase.

It is believed that food is a vehicle for distributing Ase back and forth between the deities served and those that served them. 

Adaptations of Vatapá

Over time, a few different variations of Vatapá have been created due to food allergies, availability, and personal preference.

However, the traditional ingredients of coconut milk and palm oil are almost always still used. 

Many adaptations leave out the bread thickener found in the traditional version of the dish, like in Brazilian Shrimp Salad, a popular appetizer in the country.

This is a cold dish served with shrimp briefly simmered in coconut milk and a Brazilian vinaigrette and includes diced peppers, onions, and coriander. 

Many variations of the dish swap out the ground peanuts for other nuts, but the most popular alternative is to use cashew nuts.

The protein in the dish, traditionally shrimp, is often swapped for poultry like turkey and chicken, or fish like salt cod or monkfish. 

One final variation of the dish that is often found in street carts around Brazil is acarajé y vatapá, a fritter made of crushed black-eyed peas that are then stuffed with the vatapá mixture. 

How to Prepare Vatapá

Although there are many variations of this dish, this recipe sticks to the main staples of the dish – shrimp, coconut milk, and palm oil, but with a few modern twists, adapted by The Schizo Chef

The Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 cup crushed cashews
  • 1 cup sliced almonds 
  • ¼ cup palm oil
  • 2 chopped onions
  • 2 chopped garlic cloves
  • 1 chopped jalapeño
  • 1 cup fish stock
  • 3 cups coconut milk
  • 8 ounces white fish fillet
  • 1 pound shelled shrimp
  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • Salt – to taste 

The Procedure

  1. Clean and dry the shrimp, then place them in a bowl of boiling water. Leave the shrimp for 20 minutes to cook through. Drain the water. 
  2. Chop cashews and almonds by hand. Combine the dried shrimp and nuts in a blender and pulse until you have a fine powder. 
  3. Heat the palm oil in a large skillet. Add garlic, jalapeño, and onions, sauteing until soft. 
  4. Add the dried shrimp/nut powder, fish stock and coconut milk to the skillet and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and continue cooking for 5 minutes. 
  5. Add the white fish and simmer for about 10 minutes. 
  6. Add the shrimp and cilantro and simmer for an additional 4 minutes. Add salt to taste. 

Conclusion

Vatapá is a wildly popular dish not only in Brazil but throughout the world.

Its Afro-Brazilian roots result from a broad population of Western Africans migrating to Southern America as slaves beginning as early as the 16th century.

The dish is a popular offering in the religion of Candomblé, which has African and Catholic roots. 

The traditional ingredients found in Vatapá are coconut milk, shrimp, peanuts, and palm oil, which can be found in abundance in the Bahia state of Brazil.

Over the years, there have been some adaptations to the recipe, including substitutions for the protein, nuts, and oil. 

Hopefully, you found the history of Vatapá interesting and you’ll consider giving the recipe a try! 

Sources

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