Cooking, Candomblé and ancestry: Researcher & cultural producer learned that in religion of African origin, cooks are guardians of knowledge



Note from BW of Brazil: In highlighting the contributions of Africans in Brazil, numerous articles have touched upon the importance of music, dance, martial arts, religion and quilombos among topics. But telling the story of Afro-Brazilians would still not be complete if we didn’t discuss culinary arts. Yes, Brazil would not be Brazil without its unique foods, cuisine, and cooking. And as so many aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture are intertwined, discussions of samba will eventually lead to discussions of capoeira, which will, in turn, lead to discussions on Candomblé, which would not be complete without a discussion on Afro-Brazilian foods. Below, one woman explains how her connection to Afro-Brazilian cuisine led her to discover more about her her African ancestry. 



Researcher and cultural producer discovered that in a religion of African origin, cooks are guardians of knowledge

By Juliana Gonçalves; photo: Karina Ramos

There is a mythology of the orixás that only Oxum knew how to prepare the acarajé, one of the favorite plates of Xángo. In the Yoruba language, “àkàrà” means “bola de fogo” (ball of fire) and “je” is the verb comer (to eat). By the hands of Oxum, the king of the fire fed himself.


The presence of food in the mythology of the orixás is vast. In the cult of the African gods, food is the main link between the material world, the ayê, and the spiritual world, the orun.

A daughter of Oxum, Priscila Novaes, 33, inherited from her African ancestry a liking for cooking: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and decided to try to work with it,” she says.

Still from ‘Brasil de Fato’ video featuring Priscila Novaes

Priscila set up a breakfast booth at the Guaianases station of Companhia Paulista de Trens Metropolitanos (CPTM), in the extreme east region of the city of São Paulo, and began to offer her quitutes (sweets). “Little by little I realized that that didn’t represent me and I went to research the history of foods that I always had at home, like chicken with the brown sauce, acarajé, that is, Afro cuisine,” she recalls.


The search for its roots led Priscila to know the terreiro (house of worship) of Candomblé Ilê Asé Obá Oshe Boiadeiro Sete Montanha e Bara Toco Preto. “Here I recovered my ancestry and I knew the ritualistic cuisine of candomblé,” says Priscilla who is also a cultural producer and member of the collective Mulheres de Ori (women of Ori).


“Today I am Dafona of Oxum, I am initiated in this house that is a Candomblé of efon nation”, she presents herself, with words uncommon for those uninitiated in Afro cults. At birth in Candomblé, in addition to your father and mother, you inherit a family. Dafona is the person who was initiated first or alone on the day of her birth. Iaô is a name that is taken as soon as one begins and is born to the orixás.

It was there, in the sacred space, that Priscilla realized the value of women who cook. “I noticed that the woman who cooks in an axé house has a very important meaning, all the axé comes from the kitchen,” she says.

Eurocentric society relegates a place of lesser value to cooks. “We are hidden, behind the scenes, in the back of the house. But in Candomblé it is different, the cooks are fundamental for the maintenance of axé,” she points out.

“The woman cook was responsible for the maintenance and transmission of this knowledge that comes from Africa.” Photo: Juliano Vieira/Brasil de Fato


The ancestral knowledge that Priscilla would experience for more than a year inside the terreiro is passed on by speech. “In a Candomblé house you learn by listening, observing how people behave, how food is prepared, what is said and at what time,” she observes.

Transposing this knowledge into the materialization of writing was an exercise that Priscilla learned to do. “I wanted to give visibility to the black feeding culture, the habits of consumption, the fact of eating with the hands, which means to share the moment of feeding, what can be eaten,” she exemplifies. “There are still many unknown particulars,” she says, pointing out that while Western cuisine has been widely disseminated and studied, African knowledge is still very restricted.


“At the same time, this woman cook was responsible for the maintenance and transmission of this knowledge that comes from Africa,” he says.

The book Ajeum – O Sabor das Deusas  (Ajeum – The Flavor of the Goddesses), was born to Priscilla as a task to continue her research.

The saints also eat

“Ajeum” means to eat together. It is the sacred moment that is done in the collective, where together a community feeds the body and the spirit. This is what Priscila explains as she begins the preparation of acaçá branco (white acacia), made of white corn that is served wrapped in a banana leaf.

“This food is essential for an axé house, it is one of Oxalá’s food, so it is present in everything.” Another important food is the feijão fradinho (black-eyed pea), with which you make food for several orixás, like the omolocum of Oxum, abará of Obá and the acarajé of Iansã,” she explains.


The book published this year by Editora Ciclo Contínuo brings together seven texts on the relation of black women to food, to the sacred and to the political spheres. Among the authors are Adriana Rodrigues, Sueli Carneiro, Tais Teles and Priscilla herself. The texts speak of the feminine power of the orixás, of the process that resulted in the registration of the Office of the Bahians of Acarajé by the Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (IPHAN  or National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute), of the specificities of the efon nation, and of female self-organization around the sale of foods.

Priscilla shows the preparation of the abará branco, food of Oxalá. Photo: Juliano Vieira/Brasil de Fato

Routes of resistance

In the texts written by Priscilla, she emphasizes how the street quituteras (sweets vendors), called heirs of the gain fulfilled a role in the fight for the liberation of the blacks in the period of the slavery. One of the women cited in the text is Luiza Mahin.

Born in the early nineteenth century, Mahin made a living selling food on the tabuleiros de rua (street vending boards) and was thus able to move a broad network of communication for the enslaved men and women who wanted to escape the whip, know the location of the quilombos and the points they should avoid in the routes so they would not get caught.


The article “herdeiras do ganho” (heirs of the vendors) tells how the memories of struggle and resistance were preserved in the Trans-Atlantic passage through these women who cooked and sold their food. “These women were very important in the political and social spheres and later founded the first axé houses that until today are true quilombos,” Priscila finalizes.

Source: Brasil de Fato

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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