It was love at first bite. I wanted—no, needed—more of this amazing dish!
I discovered it in Cachoeira, a small, historical, inland city in the state of Bahia, Brazil. It was only about a 10-minute drive from the Adventist college where I’d spent the past six months serving as a volunteer teacher. After a hectic week, I enjoyed escaping to this town to explore and embrace its culture.
During one of my visits, my friend Sanzia urged me to try a traditional street food known as acarajé, a small, round fritter made from black-eyed beans.
We walked around the city until we finally found a tia (auntie) ready to wow us with her culinary skills by frying the perfect acarajé on the spot.
“You can eat the acarajé plain or with a filling,” Sanzia said. “They’ll cut a hole in the fritter and fill it with something delicious. But you have to make sure that both the filling you choose and the acarajé itself aren’t made with shrimp. I always ask to make sure.”
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We ordered our acarajés, and after waiting five torturing minutes, I finally took a bite. My taste buds were rejoicing, and my stomach was in full delight as I savored every bit of this amazing Brazilian dish. Neither Sanzia nor I could resist the temptation; we ordered two more!
A few weeks later, I was invited by my friend Carol and her family to visit the city of Jequié. One night while we were there, she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Guess what we’re going to eat? Acarajé!” My stomach growled in anticipation. I couldn’t wait to see whether the acarajé in this region delivered the same magical sensation I had experienced before.
I asked Carol if we were going to the town square. “No,” she replied, “we don’t eat acarajé on the street.”
“Oh, right, the shrimp,” I responded.
“Well, yes, but we purchase them at a friend’s restaurant because she’s a Christian and doesn’t offer acarajé to the gods.”
I chuckled a bit. “The gods?”
“Why are you laughing?” she asked. “Don’t you know, acarajé is a dish that’s offered to one of the gods of the Candomblé religion? Of course, we avoid buying them from the street vendors.”
Although I had known about Candomblé, I was unaware of its connection to this dish. I nodded in agreement as I listened to Carol, but inside I was screaming, Street food always tastes better!
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Being a theologian, my brain began to draw upon biblical texts to present my case later. I wanted to mention that Paul says that food offered to idols should make no difference to believers (1 Corinthians 8:1–13). I wanted to lead my blind friends out of their darkness into a new and marvelous theological light.
As thoughts raced in my head, Carol’s father overheard our conversation. “Do you know why my name is Cosme?” he asked. “My family, especially my mother, was heavily involved in Candomblé. So much so that when my twin brother and I were born, she decided to call us Cosme and Damian in honor of the twin gods of that religion. We were heavily influenced by her devotion to this religious practice.”
Then it dawned on me. Although I didn’t express my thoughts verbally, I had been completely intolerant toward this family and their worldview. Later, as I sat back and reflected upon the situation more calmly, two lessons emerged that challenged my spiritual growth.
First, I needed to be more empathetic. Being right isn’t always the goal. In wanting to prove my point that we had the freedom to eat acarajé on the street without incurring the guilt of idol worship, I hadn’t considered the negative connotations the dish had for this family. I had attempted to “demythologize” my friends’ experience, which, for them, was real spiritual warfare that had been fought in their home.
I wanted to show them the light with my “progressive” theology, but I had completely neglected the importance of their spiritual journey. I needed to step into their shoes and see what they were seeing. Empathy places us in a position of tolerance and helps us to avoid hurting others.
Second, life choices aren’t always presented to us in black and white. What we consider to be “right” in one context can be “wrong” in another and can even become a hindrance to someone else’s faith (1 Corinthians 8:9). Therefore, the Bible doesn’t always point out the right answer for every specific circumstance but places upon us the responsibility to analyze and decide the best action for each situation.
Thus, contextualization isn’t just about studying culture and finding relevant ways to share the gospel. It also emphasizes the need to be connected to God and to be guided by the Holy Spirit who gives us wisdom (James 1:5) when faced with the gray areas of life.
My love for acarajé hasn’t died, but who knew that a simple dish could change my mind-set so drastically? At least I can jokingly say that I ate “like a god.”