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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!

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