Azeite de Dende

We were at the health post, handing out bottles to those who were interested in buying.

“10 reais for one liter? Really?”

“You kidding? Smell it. Flavored, washed with spring water, mashed by hand—and with an American helper? How often does that happen?”

This was the basic negotiation going on—I was being used as part of the marketing campaign, and my host mom Raquel was talking up her product—“not what you find at the market,” she said.

She managed to sell a good 9 liters of the homemade dende oil in a matter of 30 minutes. And when I say homemade, I’m not kidding. For about two weeks, there was a mini dende factory going on in my back yard.

But what is dende oil, exactly? It’s a traditional Bahian cooking base with a distinctive burnt orange color and a unique flavor that’s hard to pin. The only type of oil readily available in the region for a long time, it’s a key ingredient in the popular street food acaraje and in the native stews known as moquecas.

It’s role as such a staple here was striking once I saw the dende plant and participated in the production process. I gained an appreciation for those who had been doing it for centuries—it’s a lucrative but laborious process.

It began with the bizarre, cruel, spiked bunches of dense orange and purple berries that apparently grow very high up on the tree—challenging both to cut and transport. To make it easier to pick the berries around the spikes, usually someone would take a machete to the cluster, and then we would go through picking and removing leaves and thorns. The berries were then washed and cooked with a little bit of salt until softened, when they were taken to be mashed in what was essentially a huge pestle and mortar.

The mashing process resulted in yellow-orange stringy mass spotted with black pits, full of oil waiting to be washed off of the fibers. This is, in my opinion, the backbreaking part of the process: sitting on a log in front of a basin of water, rubbing the oil off the fibers and pits, agitating the water to separate the oil, and trying to collect the oil from the water’s surface. The oil collected is cooked to allow any trapped water to evaporate, and to refine the product. My family also seasons their product with a plant they call favaca (my host mom uses it to season chicken as well) and a little more salt—this, really, is what sets it apart. The oil is then bottled and ready for transport. And my little bottle of azeite de dende is sitting on a table in the kitchen, waiting to be taken to the US and used in a traditional Bahian dish.