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Heather & Alex, 1/1/11

Peruvian Chocolate

March 24, 2010

“There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who love chocolate, and communists.”

-Leslie Moak Murray in ‘Murray’s Law’ comic strip

Early yesterday morning, we said a sad goodbye to São Paulo and boarded a plane bound for Lima, Peru. Peru is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, and Alex had only visited once when he was 7 years old. Tired and jetlagged, we arrived at Jorge Chavez airport early in the morning, sat at a little airport cafe, and ordered one of their coffee drinks. Luckily, they accidentally brought me a hot chocolate instead – it was by far the happiest mixup I have ever experienced.

chocolate para taza

Sol del Cusco brand "Chocolate para Taza"

Peruvian chocolate is different than anything else – it’s something special here. Chocolate comes in many forms, but the particular variety we experienced is a Peruvian exclusive called “Chocolate para Taza” (literally, “chocolate for the cup”). This type of chocolate usually comes sweetened and flavored with cinnamon and clove. It’s deliciously thick, rich, and spicy in just the right way, and I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to fiendishly gulp it all down or lazily savor it.

In its packaged form, chocolate para taza con canela y clavo is a little bizarre. Since it’s sweetened, the texture is super grainy. It’s minimally processed and it doesn’t melt in your mouth – it’s not made for eating. It actually takes over 10 minutes of boiling in water or milk for this particular chocolate to melt and emulsify into a drinkable state, and even still, you’ll end up with a spoonful of liquid ganache at the bottom of your cup after you’re finished. A standard recipe for Peruvian hot chocolate usually calls for a bar to be broken and simmered in 3 parts milk to 1 part water, plus a tiny pinch of salt.

As far as edible chocolate goes, the quality of Peruvian chocolate is an underappreciated gem. Peru is one of the few places in the world that can actually grow cacao beans AND process them locally – most major cacao-producing areas (like Africa, Venezuela, and Brazil) ship the fermented, dried beans to the US or European chocolatiers who then fashion them into confections.  The Peruvian Amazon also has a very distinct terroir;  located in the lush tropics where the Andes mountain range meets the northern Amazon rain forest, the high altitude makes the soil different than any other cacao growing place in the world, giving it a cleaner, crisper, purer taste. In October 2009, chocolate produced from the cacao beans of a small agricultural cooperative deep in one of the country’s rain forests was named the most aromatic in the world by the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris. I haven’t tried many of the more expensive specialty chocolates here, but my favorite everyday eating chocolate is made by Winter’s Extra Dark Chocolate.

Peruvian cacao exports have increased by more than 400% in the past decade, and production this year will be around 35,000 metric tons, putting Peru close to the top 10 biggest producers. The  USDA is working with a local research center in San Martin, the Institute for Tropical Crops (ITC), to identify new varieties of cacao beans. The institute is studying 342 specimens collected from 12 watersheds. They are ultimately trying to categorize the DNA of cacao in hopes of creating a Peru-specific chocolate that could be marketed to DOC status, much like the way countries sell wine.

Hiderico Bocangel, general manager of San Martin’s Oro Verde cooperative, says Peru is already creating a niche in the chocolate world. “We have the perfect conditions here to produce exceptional chocolate,” he says.

As with most anything edible, I believe that things simply taste better when they’re eaten close to where they were grown. An added plus to Peruvian chocolate is that although many farmers can’t afford to become certified “Organic”, they also can’t afford to use harmful pesticides (which are actually counterproductive because they kill the bug that pollinates the crop in the first place!) – so almost all of the chocolate you’ll get from Peru is pesticide-free and naturally organic.

cacao plant

Cacao plants in varying degrees of ripeness

From Coca to Cacao: Changing Crops in Peru

Peru is still new to the cacao business. During the 1980’s and 1990’s,  coca (the raw material used to make cocaine) dominated Peru because the market for coca was strong and paid well.  Some farmers grew cacao, but it was not as profitable as coca.  International commodities brokers were not looking to pay farmers well for their cacao, so farmers continued to grow the crop that did pay well.  Coca production(and the subsequent drug trafficking) grew out of control in the late 80’s, and the Peruvian government slowly started trying to eradicate the excessive coca farms. However, the eradication of coca has punished farmers while failing to reduce the prevalence of coca in Peru.  Eradication efforts cause farmers to move their coca crops every couple of years to avoid the eradication of their livelihood.  Farmers clear swaths of rain forest, plant coca, harvest, and then move to another area of rain forest, clear that and continue the cycle year after year.  Farmers needed to provide for their families, and coca was a crop that allowed them to feed their families.  Destructive strategies do not address the underlying reasons for coca production.

Sustainable alternatives to coca have been sought for years.  In the early years, low value crops were suggested to farmers as substitutes to coca.  The low value and labor intensity of the alternatives made them unsustainable – would you want to work twice as hard to earn less than half as much?  I’d probably plant coca too!
Cacao and coffee are two alternatives that thrive in the same climate as coca and have replaced much of the coca that had been grown in eastern Peru.  The superior quality of coffee and cacao grown in eastern Peru earn a higher price when farmers take their harvest to market.  Coffee and cacao also help preserve the environment since they grow on the same piece of land for upward of 30 years, maintaining biodiversity of the land ensures the land’s continued fertility.  The region of San Martin is one of the best examples of how to transition from a narco-zone to a thriving region that provides opportunity to its people.

Peruvian Chocolate keeps its production near the fields of cacao, which also has the benefit of providing job opportunities for women in Peru.  Many small cacao farming communities have brought in European chocolatiers to teach the local Peruvian women specialty chocolate making techniques and tips on how to preserve the unique flavor and aroma of the beans.

The nineteenth century historian Hugues Branncfrot said that the best beans were the ones first exposed to moonlight for four nights. Those who tilled the soil slept separately from their wives the night before planting to build their passion to the max; as soon as the seeds were planted in the ground, the planters made love to their wives (or concubines) to ensure a plentiful harvest.


Trying out pupunha (the fruit), and saying goodbye to Belém.

March 14, 2010

Heron bird flying past a Pupunha palm at Parque Mangal das Garças

After coming back from Marajó we had to tend our excessively tanned skins and try and make the best out of our last days in the area. We kept going to Ver-o-peso market almost everyday in order to get our fresh açaí fix. The city of Belém also has great attractions for seeing nature. The urban zoobotanical park Emilio Goeldi has a great sample of local fauna in display amidst a vast botanical garden. Mangal das Garças is another ecological park, located in a swampy-marsh section of the Guamá river. Visitors can go up on the modern tower built for a lighthouse and enjoy great views of the jungle on the other side of the water as well as the old city with its colonial churches and fortress to the north. Inside the park there is an upscale restaurant called Manjar das Garças (we decided to not spend the money to eat there since a few of our chef friends said it was not worth the hefty price to eat simple, traditional local food). Raised boardwalks all around the park allow you to enjoy a stroll right over the marshland. There are several exhibits within the park: orchids and other native flowers, butterflies and birds. The entire marsh area is home to about one hundred herons who fly back into the park around dusk time.


On our last night in Belém our gracious host Maria de Lourdes invited us to a feast that she prepared for a group of friends from the area. She presented us with a great spread of local dishes and some of her specialties. We sampled her famous Pork in Tucupi, two types of moqueca (a traditional Brazilian fish stew): the Baiana which uses coconut milk, and the Paraense which uses tucupi. Maria de Lourdes also offered a lot of fresh local fruits for us to sample as appetizers. We happily munched on some fresh bacuri and on some steamed pupunha (the fruit collected from the pupunha palm).

Heather and I with Maria de Lourdes.

The pupunha fruit is considered a stone fruit – in English the pupunha tree is referred to as peach-palm and the fruit is sometimes called a peach-nut. In order to eat pupunha it always has to be cooked, then it can be eaten by itself or as a side dish or used as an ingredient in savory or sweet preparation. By itself the taste of the fruit is similar to that of a chestnut with a slight hint of artichoke. After you peel the fruit you can take the flesh that surrounds a small pit. The pit has two halfs, one of which can be eaten as a nut the other is too bitter and is discarded. The flesh is nicely tender after the whole fruit is steamed. By cooking it further the flesh can also be made into a puree. Chef Fabio Sicilia has included pupunha gnocchi in some of his past menus. Traditional recipes in the region also include, pupunha cakes, as well as appetizers made by combining pupunha and cheese. The pupunha fruit is very nutritious with a high content of vitamin A. It also contain protein, iron, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins B1 and C.

Bunches of pupunha fruit at Ver-o-peso

After spending almost ten days in Belém we made several friends and were fortunate to experience great foods from the Amazon. This city was a great introduction to the region; it made me want to stay and learn more while delighting myself in the beautiful landscape and delicious food. This is definitely the place that I recommend for anyone wanting to go on a cultural and gastronomic adventure. We will deeply miss the friends we made and the fresh food we ate.

See you soon Belém!

Water Buffalo on Ilha do Marajó

March 12, 2010

“The buffalo isn’t as dangerous as everyone makes him out to be. Statistics prove that in the United States more Americans are killed in automobile accidents than are killed by buffalo.”

-Art Buchwald (American Journalist, b.1925)

Map of Marajó

Ilha do Marajó, northwest of Belém

Following a recommendation from several friends, Alex and I decided to spend part of our time in Pará on Ilha do Marajó (Marajó Island), the largest freshwater island in the world. It’s only a 3 hour boat ride from Belém, and at 15,500 square miles, it’s slightly larger than the country of Switzerland. Marajó sits almost directly on the equator, bounded by the mouth of the Amazon River and the Pará River, with the easternmost side facing the Atlantic Ocean. We took our friends’ advice and stayed at a small bed and breakfast on Praia Joanes (Joanes Beach) called Pousada Ventania do Rio-Mar, which featured private hammocks, themed rooms, private beach access, and international welcomings in over 10 languages (all for less than $40/night!). Praia Joanes was the best beach I have ever been to,  simply because being able to swim in perfectly cool fresh water trumps any view on any saltwater beach.

praia joanes

Praia Joanes (Joanes Beach)

The Pousada also offered day excursions, and one afternoon we decided to go canoeing on the Amazon river with a guide. Despite my slight fear of water travel (especially via canoe or kayak!), the experience was amazing – we saw sloths, tons of toucans, the famous scarlet ibis, monkeys, and many more animals and wildlife. If you’d like to check out a very basic video we made on the trip, click here.

amazon canoe trip

The Amazon, as seen from our canoe

In addition to the massive amount of ecology and wildlife Marajó sustains, the island is home to over 500,000 wild water buffalo – which outnumber the human population more than 2-1. As a result, buffalo products, namely meat and cheese, are a huge part of the local diet. One local we met explained that in most restaurants and stores in Belém, what’s sold as beef is actually buffalo meat. People know this, but no one really complains or cares.

buffalo on marajó

Mother and baby buffalo - Marajó

I’ve been a fan of bison meat for a while now – however, the American Bison/Buffalo is a different species than the wild water buffalo (though they are distantly related). Legend has it that the buffalo are descended from animals that swam ashore from a French ship that sank while en route from India to French Guiana. The water buffalo came to Brazil from Asia, and have thrived in the tropical Amazon climate as both a source of meat and as a livestock animal. They’re less prone to disease and infection, they live longer, and their weight is more evenly distributed, making them much more valuable as a farm animal.

Buffalo vs. Cattle comparison

MEAT:  Buffalo meat is 12 times leaner than cattle meat when comparing fat. It has 40% less cholesterol, 55% fewer calories, 11% more protein, and 10% more mineral content. Buffalo doesn’t have the heavy marbling of intramuscular fat that domestic corn-fed cattle does, making it significantly healthier. In Brazil, this fact isn’t widely known, so buffalo is seen as a very abundant, inexpensive meat – whereas in the USA and Japan, meat of this quality is highly prized and much more expensive.

MILK: As a dairy animal, water buffalo milk has almost twice the quality of cattle milk. The digestive system of water buffaloes permits them to turn low grade vegetation into rich milk which, due to its higher percentage of solids, provides higher levels of protein, fat and minerals than cow’s milk.  Buffalo milk contains less water, more protein, and more lactose than cattle milk. It’s thicker than cattle milk because it contains around 25% more solids. Buffalo milk averages 7% butterfat and 18% total solids, while cattle averages only 3.8% butterfat and 11% solids; therefore, buffalo milk can produce almost twice the amount of butter or cheese as an equal volume of cattle milk. It takes almost 4 gallons of cattle milk to make 1lb of butter, whereas it takes only 1.75 gallons of buffalo milk. In Asia, buffalo milk is even considered to be a mild aphrodisiac!

Buffalo mozzarella is known worldwide for its superior taste and quality. In Italy (Campana), buffalo mozzarella holds a protected DOC label. In New York, buffalo mozzarella can sell for over $20 per pound. In Marajó, it’s the cheapest cheese you can buy.

Local Cuisine

The local specialty here is called Filé Marajoara – it’s basically a grilled buffalo steak covered with melted buffalo mozzarella. Another typical buffalo dish is called frito do vaqueiro (“cowboy’s fry”), which is buffalo meat cooked in its own fat (sort of like a confit), served with a type of gravy made with manioc flour and buffalo milk. With its proximity to water, seafood is also a dietary mainstay, especially the large freshwater fish like pirarucu.

Making friends

Everyone we encountered on the island raved about how docile and friendly the water buffalo are. Locals use buffalos as a mode of transportation, and Marajó actually has a  buffalo-mounted police force, which I happened to find incredibly entertaining. We decided to overcome our uneasiness about approaching the buffalo and, on our way back to our bed and breakfast, we tried to make friends with a buffalo who was lazily grazing on the side of the dirt road.

buffalo does not like red

What's wrong with this picture?

The buffalo seemed to glare at us as we slowly approached. The closer Alex got (yes, I made him go first…), the more irritated the buffalo became. When he was about 3 feet away, arm outstreched to pet it, the buffalo began snorting and scraping its hooves against the ground as if it were about to charge. That was it for me – I plastered myself against a tree and Alex tried to walk away calmly as it began to gallop towards us. A local man was walking past us at that exact moment, and muttered something under his breath that ended in “camiseta vermelho!!!”

We looked at each other, feeling like the most retarded tourists in existence, and quietly snuck back into the hotel. Lesson learned: don’t approach a wild buffalo wearing a bright red t-shirt.

Heather & Alex on Joanes beach

Heather & Alex relaxing on Joanes Beach

Dom Giuseppe

March 12, 2010

When I was working in Italy in 2008 I had the opportunity to attend Salone del Gusto and its sister Slow Food conference Terra Madre. At Terra Madre I signed up for the talks from restaurant professionals who try to apply the Slow Food ideals into their businesses. One of these talks was entitled Sustainability in the Restaurant, one of the speakers in this talk was a chef from Brazil called Fabio Sicilia. His portion of the talk focused on the issue of exotic ingredients that are sourced in the Amazon and used in Europe and in the United States. Chef Sicilia focused on his experiences as a native from Belém who traveled to Europe to attend culinary school. It was during his talk that I first learned about the issues regarding the açaí trade. Sometimes the big companies that are making a huge profit selling these ingredients internationally will even go as far as spreading false rumors that the crops are tainted with disease so that the locals will not consume the açaí, leaving a bigger share for the large companies. He also mentioned issues regarding the cocoa beans that are grown in Pará but hardly ever consumed locally. There are cocoa farmers that he visited who do not have any knowledge or incentive to process their own beans and produce local chocolate, instead they buy all their chocolate and cocoa powder from large companies such as Nestlé. On the other hand, chef Sicilia said that there are ingredients that are now becoming profitable because they were “discovered” by European chefs who employ them in new and creative preparations while the locals disregarded the product as something uninteresting or simply an unwanted weed. This is the case of the berry that chef Sicilia found in France under the name physalis (also known as Cape gooseberry) – he fell in love with the taste of it and was eager to share it with the cooks at his restaurant in Belém. When he returned and shared his discovery with his cooks he was told that this is actually a fruit from a herbaceous shrub that grows rampant in the outskirts of Belém and is mostly burned as an unwanted weed. After the talk ended I approached chef Sicilia and shared my interest in coming to Belém and learning first hand about all the incredible foods he talked about. He gave me his contact information and told me to pay a visit if I ever come to the area. Chef Sicilia’s talk that day and his welcome invitation is actually one of the main reasons why I decided to make Belém a major stop in this South American trip.

After a few days exploring Belém on our own we decided to come and check out chef Sicilia’s restaurant, Dom Giuseppe. Our host Maria de Lourdes said that Dom Giuseppe is rated one of the best Italian restaurants in town, so we were excited to try it out. Chef Sicilia is actually a very active businessman in the area. He is the president of the regional Restaurant and Bar Association, he is the Chef Coordinator of the Amazon Chapter of Slow Food, all in addition to running his restaurant and a wine store adjacent to Dom Giuseppe.

Peixe no tucupi

The restaurant’s menu consists mostly of traditional Italian dishes but with a Brazilian touch to it. Some of Chef Sicilia’s creations makes the use of local ingredients and techniques. For an appetizer we had crostinis with local cheese. The two main dishes that the chef recommended were Peixe no Tucupi and Filet Mignon com Risotto de Baião de Dois. The fish dish consisted of a tucupi sauce thickened with tapioca gum and used to coat the base of the plate giving a mirror-like base where the filet of dorade was placed leaning on white rice and topped with jambu. A classic Pará dish with a nice fine dining presentation. Every item was perfectly executed giving a great flavor combination to the dish. The other entree we sampled was the beef tenderloin with risotto de baião de dois. This dish uses the traditional Northeastern Brazilian concept of mixing rice with  beans, cheese, and carne secabut here Chef Sicilia uses arborio rice and the risotto method, giving the dish an Italian flare. The finishing touch is some sauteed kale with pancetta and farofa, making it a very traditional all-Brazilian dish. Once again all items were perfectly executed, the risotto was very hearty and flavorful, and the beef was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. The whole time we were there Chef kept us company and treated us to great wine from his cellar.

Filet mignon com risotto de baião de dois

The business philosophy of Dom Giuseppe is an excellent example of great hospitality. The staff is extremely well trained, and the place has a great ambiance for both parties and intimate dinners. While we were having our dinner there was another table with a birthday celebration and the staff puts on a great show with lights, choreography and sparkling birthday candles. Chef Sicilia also invited us to see the kitchen, and I am pleased to say that his kitchen is by far the nicest and cleanest kitchen I have ever seen in South America.

After we were done with dinner he invited us to a local vale tudo event that he was sponsoring (mixed martial arts). This was a very exciting opportunity since most of the greatest fighters in the world stage start in small Brazilian venues like Belém. The whole night was very fun and I am extremely glad to have made my way here to taste the food and hone my friendship with Fabio Sicilia. I am sure that our paths will keep crossing in the future, and make sure to pay him a visit if you’re ever in Belém!

Restaurante Dom Giuseppe

Avenida Conselheiro Furtado, 1430
Belém – PA, 66035-350, Brasil
+55 (91) 3241-1146


March 11, 2010

Every afternoon in Belém you see the locals gathering around strategically placed food carts that are found throughout the street corners in the city. The wondrous meal that they are looking for is called tacacá. This dish represents the local cuisine in a way that perhaps no other dish does. It makes use of very traditional native ingredients presenting a flavor that is as unique as the surroundings of a big city in the Amazon rainforest.

In order to understand tacacá, one must first be familiar with the ingredients used in the dish.  The dish consists of a soup made with tucupi broth, garnished with jumbo prawns (which are salted dry, and re-hydrated prior to cooking), jambu, and some tapioca gum added for consistency.


Tucupi bottles for sale at Ver-o-peso market

Tucupi is one of the main staples of Pará cuisine. It is the liquid obtained from processing the manioc for starch. The tuber is first peeled and grated then it is pressed by machine, or more traditionally, by hand using a long and thin basket woven of straw (called tipiti). The liquid that is extracted by pressing the manioc is then boiled many times over in order to eliminate all of the cyanide content. The liquid is then cooled and allowed to rest until all sediment separates in the bottom so the clear portion from the top can be removed. The clear liquid is them simmered with chicória (a local wild species of cilantro), alfavaca (a local type of basil), salt, and sometimes garlic and pepper might be added, depending on personal preference.

The sediment previously separated from the manioc liquid is what is referred to as tapioca gum. This is the ingredient added to the bowls of tacacá as the finishing touch. The tapioca gum is also what is used to obtain the starch used for ironing clothes and for processing tapioca flour or any other tapioca product.

Jambu for sale at Ver-o-peso market

Jambu (Spilanthes acmella) is referred to in English as para cress, it is very similar to watercress but with a distinct property that gives a slight numbing sensation on the tongue and lips. It is widely used in Amazon regional cuisine, here in Belém you can find jambu served with just about anything from a pizza to any traditional native dish.

The word tacacá is believed to have originated from the indigenous words tata (hot) and caa (weed). Locals are used to drinking this hot soup at the end of the day and they believe that the hot broth actually makes you sweat off the heat from the humid afternoon. The local vendors will serve you the soup in a cuia, a bowl that is carved out of a local species of gourd and decorated with traditional Portuguese motifs. As a utensil you use a wooden fork to pick up the prawns and the large jambu leaves. The combined textures of the thin tucupi broth and the almost snot-like consistency of the tapioca gum turns out a very interesting soup to drink. The broth has a little bit of spice from the local peppers known as pimenta-de-cheiro (Capsiccum annuum cerasiforme) the name literally translates to “scented pepper”. The prawns are quite salty but when the numbing property of the jambu takes effect you don’t mind the spice and saltiness anymore. The tapioca gum works as a good contrast to the other elements of the dish.


tacacá served in the traditional cuia

Drinking tacacá in a Belém afternoon is an experience that is very difficult to describe in words. All of the elements of the dish seem to be perfectly fit with the setting. I believe this dish would not be nearly as good if I was sitting in a white table-cloth restaurant or somewhere in the world with a pleasant temperate climate. All the ingredients used in the dish are native to the region and most you cannot find elsewhere.

The vendor we bought our tacacá from is called Maria do Carmo Pompeu dos Santos, her business is better known as Tacacá do Colégio Nazaré because it stands on the sidewalk across from Colégio Nazaré. She is one of the most famous tacacá vendors in Belém but locals will have their favorite spot based on personal preference. Each vendor makes her own tucupi and the personal touch they add to the broth is what can win them a following. There are supposed to be two variants to the flavor of the tucupi, some being sweeter and others being more acidic. Maria do Carmo is known for having a sweeter tucupi that is favored by most customers.

Alex with tacacá

I approve Maria do Carmo's tacacá!


March 9, 2010

“One man’s poison ivy is another man’s spinach.”

-George Ade (1866-1944) American humorist

To a westerner, most of the traditional dishes here in Belém seem a little strange – Maniçoba (pronounced ma -nee-SO-ba) is definitely no exception.  It looks completely unappetizing – it’s a thick, mud-like, almost black chunky puree studded with pieces of indistinguishable smoked meat, salted pork, and sausage, served over rice. If it weren’t for the overwhelming amount of people who enthusiastically told me “You HAVE to try this while you’re in Belém!!” , I probably would have skipped it altogether.


Maniçoba - looks delicious, no?

Maniçoba takes at least 4 (preferably 7-8) days to cook. It’s primarily made out of fresh manioc leaves that have been ground into a fine green paste with a mortar and pestle (nowadays, mechanical grinders are used for large-scale production, but many indigenous families still grind it by hand). Like the manioc itself, the leaves contain a potentially lethal concentration of hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) – after 4 days of continuous boiling, the toxin is destroyed and it is safe for human consumption. Most people cook it for several more days to improve the flavor of the leaves. After 4 days, they’re still slightly green and bitter – the longer they cook, the darker they get and the flavor mellows out to something a little more palatable. The taste of maniçoba is hard to describe – it’s a hearty, rich, smoky, almost burnt flavor with very strong earthy undertones, and a very distinctive aftertaste. It overpowers almost everything else you’ll eat with the meal. It’s served over rice, topped with coarse-ground manioc flour, and garnished with pimenta-de-cheiro, the local hot pepper.

Maniçoba is also known as the “feijoada of Pará”, substituting potentially toxic manioc leaves for black beans. It’s yet another dish that you won’t be able to find anywhere else in the world (can you imagine the FDA actually approving something like this? 🙂 ).  Maniçoba started out as a traditional dish accompanying the Cirío de Nazaré, which is the area’s largest religious festival held in late October. It quickly gained popularity and can be found in almost every restaurant in the area offering typical regional foods.


A nicer presentation of Maniçoba

The word “maniçoba” is a combination of several indigenous words: mani (manioc)+ so (to undo or cut) + mba (entirely/completely) – “to completely undo manioc”.  When the Portuguese arrived, manioc had already been completely domesticated and the native people were thoroughly knowledgeable regarding its many uses.  The Portuguese added the salted meat, bacon, blood sausage, and a few of their own preferred seasonings, and created a fusion dish that has stood the test of time.

In the mercado ver-o-peso in Belém, you can buy manioc leaves already ground up and ready to use.  During the last weeks of October, the markets are filled with indigenous men and women tearing the leaves from the stems by hand.

The locals say that you can tell if a maniçoba is good by the green track it leaves on the back of a spoon.

The truth about Açaí

March 8, 2010

“Quem vai ao Pará, parou; tomou açaí, ficou…”

(local proverb)

The bustling açaí trade in the middle of the night in Belém

It’s barely 4 a.m., and while most of the city of Belém is sound asleep, the docks located just past the Southwest end of Mercado Ver-o-Peso are bustling with a multitude of boats being unloaded with all sorts of goods brought from the Amazon. The fish docks are crowded with merchants closing on deals, while ice trucks are being quickly loaded since more trucks wait for their place in line. A few hundred meters from the fish docks are the fruit docks. Merchants there are busy dealing with shipments of manioc flour, young coconut, pineapple, papaya, cupuaçu, graviola, and every other tropical fruit you can and can’t even think of. The main shipment being unloaded off the boats is açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE), the tiny magical berry that has been supposedly touted by Oprah and every other celebrity in the USA for the past two or three years (Oprah has actually filed lawsuit against more than 40 internet distributers for illegally using her name in order to market açaí products).

Thanks to the Oprah hype, if you do a Google search for “acai”, as it is spelled in English, what you get is a bunch of companies trying to sell you overly processed açaí that is freeze dried, pulverized, made into pills, shakes, and all other forms of supplements that offer promises of miraculous weight loss and health. Pure açaí is actually good for you, when it is organic and natural. But I am not here to write about the benefits of this fruit. If you are looking for that then read elsewhere. Just beware that more than 50% of all açaí juice and supplements sold internationally contains just a small fraction of processed açaí berry. What you find in the USA usually has a tremendous amount of fillers that can range from water to magnesium stearate, multidextrin, and soy lecithin, among others. Even in other areas of Brazil, like in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, one can only find watered down and previously frozen açaí that is re-thickened with guaraná powder.

Açaí as it is found in the USA. Notice that most of these are not recommended for people under 18 years of age!

This is actually one my main motives for coming to Belém: to see the Amazonian ingredients as they are consumed in their fresh state. To see these ingredients in the way they are meant to be, in one of the few places where you can actually consume them without any excessive processing that alters the taste. In the State of Pará, açaí is actually consumed as a daily food staple. It is eaten with savory meals along with yellow manioc flour.

One of the reasons that the fruit arrives in the docks before 4 a.m. is in order to preserve its integrity. The berries are picked at midnight and immediately shipped (usually with ice mixed with it in the baskets). Açaí is a highly perishable product; the sunlight harms the picked fruit so the whole shipment has to be sold at market before daybreak. Throughout the city of Belém you can find a bustling açaí trade. Locals stop at small shops to have their morning fix before going to work. Housewives also come out early to buy the fresh pressed açaí pulp to take home for their family’s lunch. Unlike in the rest of Brazil, where beans are a daily staple, in Pará the traditional accompaniment to the day’s protein (usually fish, shrimp or meat) is fresh pressed açaí.

Heather enjoying a fresh bowl of açaí for breakfast. (notice that she is wearing an earing made from an açaí seed combined with dried rubber tree bark)

The açaí berry comes from a palm tree. Brazilian natives have always made use of all different parts of the tree for different applications. After the açaí berries are pressed the seeds are used for extracting medicinal oils that are used as a laxative. The heart of the açaí palm is consumed (just as any other heart of palm) in salads and savory dishes. The bark of the palm is used as a traditional construction material for huts. The leaves can be woven for baskets or roofing, although other local palm species produce better leaves for this application. The seeds can also be used in crafts; several places sell jewelry made with the seeds that are dyed with all kinds of colors.

Up until the 1990’s most of the commercial production was geared towards harvesting the açaí palm; but when the international community started to put pressure on the Brazilian government to control deforestation of the Amazon a more sustainable alternative had be sought. This is when the upsurge in Amazonian fruit trade began, with fruits like cupuaçu, bacuri, and açaí. Most the berries sold at the Belém market come from riverside communities and also from the nearby islands on the Guajará Bay. According to EMPRABA, about 150,000 liters of açaí wine is produced by the more than 3,000 vendors in Belém everyday; the per capita consumption in the region is greater than the consumption of milk.  Outside of Pará, it is estimated that Rio de Janeiro consumes 500 tons of açaí per month, São Paulo comes second at 150 tons, and the other Brazilian states (combined) consume 200 tons every month. The international trade officially began in the year 2000, with exports being sold to the USA and Italy. The current volume being sold to foreign countries is a little over 1,000 tons per year.

Açaí press

Everyday, after the freshly picked berries arrive at the docks, they are sold to either local vendors or dealers, who will process and redistribute the frozen pulp to the national and international markets. The local açaí vendors process the berries in small batches so that there is always freshly pressed açaí wine, as it is called by the natives. To make the açaí wine the berries are thouroughly washed and then pressed on a mechanical mill that separates the juice from the seed. Although most inhabitants of Belém will buy their açaí pressed, the villagers from the river communities still press the juice by hand. Each berry has very little pulp surrounding the seed, so lots of berries are needed to yield a small amount of juice.

The freshly pressed açaí wine has a very distinct flavor: it is a thick and creamy juice, with a lingering taste that is actually much stronger and unique than anything you would taste from an industrialized version of the juice. The flavor is similar to a mixture of blueberry and unsweetened chocolate. Since the juice is not sweet at all, the versions sold elsewhere have a lot of added sugar. That’s why it comes as a little bit of a surprise to most outsiders that the locals consume the açaí with fried fish and rice, topped with manioc flour. This is actually a really good dish. The açaí juice coats the inside of your mouth and blends in with the other ingredients, providing a tart flavor to go with the fried fish. Besides this very traditional and simple use of the açaí, there are also many different ways that chefs all over Belém and throughout Brazil are making use the berry’s juice. In desserts, the fruit juice can be used in just about anything- ice creams, puddings, cakes, chocolate confections, sauces, you name it. It is also a very versatile ingredient for savory dishes, especially sauces, but it can also be used in marinades and of course served plain as an accompaniment. When you eat fresh açaí at the market in Belém the juice coats your mouth and dyes your tongue purple, marking you as one who has been initiated in the club of fresh açaí lovers- after that, your life will never be the same. As the local proverb quoted above says: “One who goes to Pará, stops here; one who drinks açaí, stays here”.

I tasted açaí and now I want to stay!

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