You must try Dada

Star chef, glitzy restaurateur, Brazil's social darling. But not long ago, Dada was living in poverty. As she heads for the UK, she tells Andrew Tuck how her rich Bahian cooking became her fortune

We are driving up the coast, just north of the steamy city of Salvador, capital of the equally steamy Brazilian state of Bahia. On the edge of the sand-covered track that our air-conditioned people carrier is bouncing along, Dada spots a house that, she says, is like the one she was born in. Her driver pulls over so that we can inspect the property. Palm fronds have been attached to a frame of sticks; the construction looks like something a huff and a puff could soon blow down, but it protects the residents from the tropical rain and heat. On the floor there's a pot and some sticks: this is the fitted kitchen.

Close by is a much grander house: it has walls made of mud. "Eventually we moved to a house like this," says Dada with warm-hearted pride. The occupants are at home, the men of the family sawing planks to make a canoe for fishing. They invite us into their fenced compound. Dad even shows us what they are going to be eating this week: dried shrimps. In fact, it seems to be what everyone around here is going to be eating all week. That and the small tasty crabs that reside in the black mud of the nearby mangrove swamps.

These creatures are certainly the basis of most of the dishes on the menu at the small beachside restaurant where we have lunch in Conde, the town where Dada spent her early years. And when we call in at a nearby store, shrimp shelling is the afternoon's activity for a group of about 15 young women sat in a circle on the concrete terrace.

This was supposed to be Dada's lot too: a shack by the sea, a life of getting by. But, today, Dada, 43, lives with her two daughters and two fluffed-up puppies in an elegant penthouse with its own sky-high pool in one of the smartest districts of Salvador. Her social circle has broadened beyond fishermen too and now includes the city's architects, writers and musicians.

Her fame and fortune, however, owe much to those shrimps and to her past in the town of Conde. Dada, you see, is the most celebrated Bahian chef in Brazil. The owner of three restaurants, she has cooked dinner for the then First Lady Hillary Clinton during an official visit to Bahia, has had her recipe book published and caters events where thousands of demanding diners have to be fed. Yet, the people who clamour for a table in her establishments come not for nouvelle cuisine but for a taste of the countryside, for traditional dishes done to perfection. And, yes, for the odd shrimp too.

Now Dada's adding to her triumphs with a month in Britain as part of Selfridges' cultural celebration, 40° Brasil. It will be a rare opportunity for people to see how unique Bahian cuisine is. Many dishes involve lashings of palm oil (Dada often substitutes olive oil), coconut, manioc and fiery peppers. Then you need seafood: prawns, shrimps, crayfish, crabs, lobsters, octopus, fish - because of the heat, shrimps will often be dried, fish salted (bacalhau is popular). Next there's the fresh vegetables: okra, spring onions, palm hearts, beans. And fruits, many of which are rarely seen in Europe, such as the small green umbu, or the cherry-like acerola.

British people will also get the chance to meet a woman who everyone in Salvador not only knows but, it seems, loves. About 5ft tall, Dada has an infectious machine-gun cackle that is triggered every few minutes, dynamic energy, and a glitzy dress sense (think brightly coloured headscarves, gold jewellery, Lurex tops).

There's a touch of Absolutely Fabulous's Edina about her. While her eldest daughter is a quiet sensible university student, Dada loves serving one of the city's quirkier delights to taken-aback guests: a smoked cheese in the shape of a particularly well-endowed penis. With diners she's warm, tactile; with her staff you can see a steely determination to get things done her way. She's like this city, a captivating combination of tough, laid-back and sensual.

A two-hour flight north of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador was once the capital of Brazil and the first part of the country to be settled by the Portuguese who shipped in slaves from Africa to work on their sugar plantations. And this piece of history still defines the city. Unlike Rio or Sao Paulo, the people are mainly of African heritage; many are followers of Candomble and Umbanda, two Afro-Brazilian religious cults; capoeira, a marshal-art-cum-dance based on African ritual dances, flourishes; and the city's streets are still lined with colonial houses and baroque churches built with plantation wealth. And Africa is also there in the cooking: manioc, palm oil, coconuts, all are direct links with the continent on the other side of the Atlantic.

But before she says any more about the food, there's her extraordinary story. Over a long lunch in her latest venture, Restaurante Dada, a vast beachside dining-room and lounge bar that shelters under a white, tented roof, and * which has statues of Christ and the Madonna perched on its walls, she pieces together the twists and turns that took her from poverty to wealth. Well, almost. Dada is not one for dates and if you ask her what year some seemingly crucial event happened, she's unable to satisfy your British need for a neat chronology.

Her life, however, did start in Conde, with her mother and a brother, who was later killed in a car crash. She never knew her father. The family had almost nothing. "We ate corn, rice, beans, no meat. Once a year we might get a buffalo head. I would fish in the river, which was also where we washed," she says. By the age of seven she was working and cooking in the houses of the town's wealthier residents (during our trip to Conde, we call in on one such family who dote on her and ply us with tapioca cake).

At the age of 12, Dada was in Salvador, first as a servant, then as a nanny, and finally as a cook. She dreamt of making good and felt that somehow fate might be on her side: "I even thought that I saw a sign telling me to stay in Salvador. I was looking at a statue and on one side it was sunny, on the other it was raining. I thought it was magical. It was months before I realised that there was a fountain hidden from my view."

Over the next 10 years she toiled for numerous households, all the time making sure she honed her culinary skills. Eventually she settled in Salvador, taking a room in one of the city's many favelas or slums. Dada began selling food on the street to make money.

When she became pregnant, she started serving food at six little tables in the backyard of her favela home. A neighbour made a sign for her to hang on the street. "I printed up a small card which described the restaurant as 'very famous' and distributed them everywhere. On the first day, only three people came. Soon, however, people got to know about it. Wealthy people started coming to the favela and they were supportive of me, of what I was doing. And they loved the food. One man came who worked for a TV station and he did an item about me, then even more people came," says Dada with a victorious smile.

Although it has grown, been decorated with colourful murals, and had its walls covered with posters of its beaming owner, Dada still has this restaurant, Varal da Dada, (along with one in the Pelourinho, the city's frenetic old town where slaves were once brought to be whipped; and her elegant beachside hangout). In a nod to the old days, when she was bringing up her kids and running the restaurant in the same place, a decorative washing line of clothes flaps in the breeze above the open-air courtyard.

Although fate, personality and ambition have been key in Dada's penthouse and pavement life, it's her Bahian food that keeps people coming back for more.

Dada takes me shopping for the crucial provisions. We start at swanky supermarket Perini, where chic people push trollies loaded with champagne, jellied fruits and packets of canary-yellow tapioca flour (it is sprinkled on food to soak up juices so that you can eat with your hands). Then we head to the vibrant, if ramshackle and muddy, market by the dock.

"I come here twice a week says Dada, but you must be careful," she warns me. With Dada by your side, even with her giant gold necklace glinting in the sun, you can go anywhere in this rough area. Traders greet her as we make our stately progress. She squeezes pineapples, buys a bag of corn, points out a tray of jenipapo, a fruit that looks like a rotting fig and which, she says gives you stamina for dancing. And there are, of course, piles of dried seafood.

These are the ingredients Dada needs to create Bahian dishes - with her personal touch - such as casquinha da Dada, made from shrimps, prawns, cheese and cream and which you eat with toasted bread; escaldado de pitu, with its succulent ruby-shelled crayfish in a spiced broth of tomatoes and onions; and moqueca, a rich stew-like concoction with perhaps bacalhau, prawns or crayfish. Then there's acaraje, a black-eyed-bean fritter that's fried in palm oil and then filled with shrimps, spices and peppers (acaraje is to Bahia what fish and chips are to Britain. You buy them on the street from the cooks known at baianas de acaraje who dress in voluminous Gone With The Wind look white dresses and turbans).

During four days with Dada, she feeds me in her penthouse home, on a glitzy speed boat, in her three restaurants. But it's in Conde that I see her skills at their purest. We stop at a house she is building for her two aunts, but which as yet has no kitchen. So, on the earth, over a fire made from sticks and bricks, she sets to cooking us a Bahian feast. She also serves jenipapo hooch. The food is unbelievable. When rain falls, the table is moved under the partial shelter of a tree. But no one is going to abandon this meal. She has us eating out of her hands.