The truth about Açaí
“Quem vai ao Pará, parou; tomou açaí, ficou…”
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.
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.
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.
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”.