Artisanal dendê palm oil

“NOELLE, DENDÊ OIL is a sacred liquid,” Brazilian chef Isis Rangel messages me, in Portuguese, moments after we’ve hung up the phone. “I forgot to tell you that.”

I’ve just been speaking with Rangel about the brilliantly red oil used in the African-inspired cuisine of Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia. Rangel is head chef at Sabores de Gabriela, which specializes in Bahian food, but is located further south — in the đô thị where I lived growing up, Rio de Janeiro.

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Rangel wants lớn be sure I’ve understood the spiritual significance of this pungent palm fruit oil, but she needn’t worry. She’d made that clear in speaking about dendê’s role in religious offerings. She’d also underlined the central place of dendê oil, or “azeite de dendê,” in the complex, spicy, & rich cuisine of Bahia.


Photo: Marcelo Moryan/Shutterstock

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It’s the dendê oil that brings out the fish stew’s depth. If you’ve tried a moqueca in an inventive sầu restaurant outside of Brazil and the hearty flavors didn’t linger in your mouth, there’s a good chance it wasn’t made with dendê oil. In fact, it’s hard lớn think of any dish cooked with dendê that isn’t rich with umami flavors.

“Nothing substitutes for azeite de dendê. Nothing,” asserts Rangel.

The most delicate and aromatic dendê oil is called the “flower,” captured from the top of the freshly processed oil. “It’s very transparent, but red and beautiful,” says Rangal of this oil. The remaining, much denser oil is called bambá, & it’s what’s used for deep frying the acarajé, given its higher burning point.

Dendê oil remains in scarce supply

Despite the commercial success of palm kernel oil, the production of dendê oil from the palm fruit is still a low-tech affair, & its abundance isn’t assured from year khổng lồ year, notes Rangal.

“We are just beginning lớn see a crisis of dendê oil. Why? Production in Salvador has diminished as a result of the climate, the laông chồng of technological investment in the harvesting of the fruit,” she says.

When production is affected, supplies run low of an oil that’s still very much produced in a “handmade” way, says Rangal. And that has consequences for the people who depend on it for a living.

“The Baianas basically live sầu from the sale of these delicacies,” says Rangal of the women who sell the acarajés streetside. “If the production of dendê oil is reduced or is missing, that’s a problem for them…. So for Bahia, dendê oil is fundamental to the livelihoods of the people who live sầu off of that.”

“And for me too,” adds Rangal. “This is a Bahian restaurant, và I make exactly that food on the basis of dendê oil. So it’s tough for me as well in terms of cost and in terms of obtaining it.” Fortunately, so far this year, dendê has not been tough lớn source, and she’s grateful lớn be serving her well-loved acarajés, as well as dishes made with crab, pumpkin, và cassava — other ingredients used heavily in Brazil’s northeast.

As khổng lồ the occasional difficulties in readily obtaining dendê, Rangal says she’s confident these issues will eventually work themselves out.

“I’m sure that all this will pass, and that we’ll be able lớn continue making our food the way it should be made,” says Rangal. “With azeite de dendê.”