Paratur Street vendor serves tacacá in Belém, Pará
The northern region of Brazil has seven states: Amazonas, Pará, Acre, Rondônia, Amapá, Roraima and Tocantins. Their combined area includes almost all of Brazil’s large portion of the great Amazon River, its tributaries and the rain forest, collectively called Amazônia. This region contains the most diverse collection of species on earth.
In the early 1600s the Portuguese asserted their claim to the northern region of Brazil, expelling French, English and Dutch intruders who had set up small outposts in the region. Our Lady of Presépio Fort was established in 1616 at the site of the present-day city of Belém, strategically placed at the southern entrance of the Amazon river. The Portuguese also set up several forts in the Amazon basin, including one that is now the city of Manaus. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were about fifty settlements along the riverbanks. The north underwent little further development until the latter part of the nineteenth century when the rubber boom catapulted the cities of Manaus and Belém into great prosperity and importance. The euphoria was short-lived, however, because the success of plantation rubber in Malaysia, an industry started with smuggled Amazon rubber tree seeds, drove down rubber prices and ended Brazil’s monopoly in 1912. Today, mining, manufacturing, lumbering and, in Manaus, free-trade zone status, sustain the economy. Many visitors to Manaus and Belém, still the area’s two major population centers, spend a day or two exploring these historic and friendly cities before taking off on excursions on the river or into the rain forest.
The Amazon basin was home to Tupi Indians, relatives of the same tribe of Indians who met the first Portuguese arrivals on the northeast coast. Their diet of manioc, corn, beans, yams, peanuts, peppers, wild fruits and fresh fish is still very much in evidence today among the inhabitants of the north. Much of the population lives in small settlements in houses built on stilts along the main rivers, or along the maze of narrow channels called igarapés, formed when the river floods and cuts through a region of the jungle. These inhabitants of the hinterlands, or caboclos, are of mixed Portuguese and Indian ancestry. For many, growing and laboriously detoxifying the poisonous variety of manioc grown on nearby land above the flood level is a way of life. The coarse meal produced from these tubers is a complement to every meal, sprinkled generously over just about anything.
The cuisine of the north draws heavily on its Indian heritage. One of the best-known dishes is pato no tucupí, duck marinated in lemon juice, oil and garlic, then roasted, and finally boiled in tucupí, a sauce made with the liquid extracted from grated manioc tubers and seasoned with jambú leaves and chicory. Jambú is an intriguing jungle plant whose leaves and stem produce a very faint numbing sensation in the lips and tongue. This herb is also an important component of a flavorful seasoned soup called tacacá, which contains dried shrimp and tapioca topped with tucupí sauce. It is traditionally served in bowls fashioned out of gourds, or cuias. The classic dish maniçoba is a stew containing various dried, smoked and fresh meats, along with giblets. It is flavored with ground manioc leaves, or maniva, which also color the stew a dark green.
Many dishes feature fish, a basic dietary component in the north. Some preparations use a spice called urucu(m), or colorau, as a flavoring and coloring. Urucu(m) is made by coarsely grinding the orange-red seeds from the berries of the annatto tree. The spice is known in the United States by the name annatto or achiote. Caldeirada is a popular fish stew similar to a bouillabaisse. The most valuable commercial fish of the region is the mammoth pirarucu, marketed primarily in a dried salted form. Its delicious flesh is quite meaty, almost like chicken. A popular dish made with this fish is posta de pirarucu seco ao leite de côco, or a slice of fish served in a delicious coconut sauce. Certain inedible parts of this fish are also valued. The large, brown-tipped scales are sold as fingernail files and are used in a variety of handicrafts, especially masks. Even the tongue is recycled, its raspy surface useful as a grater. Another economically important fish featured on menus is the tasty tambaquí. This amazing fish is equipped with powerful, molar-like teeth for crushing its food - the fruits and seeds, especially the hard seeds of the rubber tree, that fall into the water of the flooded forest. A regional specialty is picadinho de tambaquí, which is a mixture of fish pieces served with rice, jambú leaves and toasted manioc meal. The beautifully colored tucunaré, or peacock bass, is also a prized food fish. It is the coveted catch of fly-fishermen who are beginning to discover the thrills of angling for it in the Amazon basin. A considerable number of catfish, such as surubim, caparari and filhote, can be sampled. Filhote are juvenile specimens of the largest fish of the Amazon, the giant piraíba, which reaches lengths of 10 feet and weights of 300 pounds. All of these fish must be tried in the restaurants and seen in the markets!
Some of the most traditional and best-loved dishes native to the Amazon region are made with turtle (tartaruga) and its eggs, and manatee (peixe-boi). Although these are endangered species and won’t appear on the menu, some restaurants still offer them.
Perhaps Brazil’s greatest treasure is her bounty of fruit. Many varieties of tropical fruit are not cultivated but grow freely in the wetland areas or in the uplands. Some are palm fruits. As is true for so many of the natural features of the land, most fruits bear Tupi Indian names. Even today some of these fruits are unknown in other regions of the country, particularly in the south. To the tourist the sheer variety of new and unusual types can be an overwhelming experience.
Brazilians use fruits in many ways. They are eaten raw, made into juices, jellies, marmalades, compotes, fermented beverages such as wines and liqueurs, syrups, flavorings for ice cream, desserts of endless combinations, and in many instances made into a sweet firm paste of fruit pulp mixed with sugar. The names for these pastes typically end with “ada.” For example, the fruit we know as guava is called goiaba by the Brazilians, and in the form of a sweet paste becomes goiabada.
In Manaus and especially Belém, the outdoor markets are a showcase for the regional fruits. The Foods & Flavors Guide in “Eat Smart in Brazil” provides detailed descriptions of fruits and other produce to help with their identification in the markets. To truly experience Brazil, try as many of these fruits as you can!
Among the palm fruits are pupunha, acaí, burití (miriti), patauá, bacaba, tucumã and uxí. Pupunha, which has yellow, orange-red or green skin when ripe, is usually sold with the fruit still in clusters on the stems. It is never eaten raw. Rather, it is boiled and eaten warm, often with honey placed in the depression left by the large seed. The small, blue-black palm fruit called acaí is made into a juice that becomes a purple paste when manioc meal and sugar are added. The mixture tastes somewhat like black raspberries. Colorful cooking oils can be extracted from some of the palm fruits. Burití generates a red oil, patauá a light-green oil, and bacaba a yellow one.
Some other fruits to look for are cupuaçu, cacau, graviola, cajá, bacurí, cajá manga, jaca, murici, ata or fruta do conde, ingá, jambo, maracujá and biribá. The aromatic cupuaçu is an easy favorite. This fairly large (up to 10 inches long), oblong fruit with a tough brown exterior and light-yellow pulp is closely related to cacau, whose seeds are the source of chocolate. Cupuaçú forms the basis of many popular desserts, including cakes, tortes and puddings. The sweet juice made from cupuaçu pulp becomes a delicious drink and is an ingredient in many desserts such as torta do pará, which specifically features the familiar Brazil nut called castanha do pará, native to the state of Pará. The graviola is a somewhat lopsided dark-green fruit with numerous soft spines on the surface. It makes a marvelous flavoring for ice creams, or sorvetes.
Two of the most exceptional fruits are guaraná and cajú. Guaraná is one of the best-loved fruits in Brazil and much folklore is based around it. The edible part is the black seed within some white, fleshy material. When ripe, the fruit has an uncanny resemblance to the human eye as it “peers” out of its opened, bright orange-red capsule. Ingesting the seeds produces high energy levels, which the Indians attributed to supernatural powers, but which we now know is the effect of caffeine. A legend of the Sataré-Maué Indians explains why the seeds resemble eyes. A beautiful Indian woman named Onhiamuacabê gave birth to a child sired by a mysterious being. This child was killed for eating some forbidden nuts, and at his burial site, a guaraná bush grew from his eye. According to the legend, the bush also brought forth a child from whom the Maué tribe descended. To the Indians, the seeds not only were a stimulant, they were an aphrodisiac and a means to prolong life. They roasted and ground the seeds, mixed them with manioc meal, and rolled the resulting paste into sticks, which were allowed to harden. Using the rough-surfaced tongue of the pirarucu fish as a grater, they broke off small pieces of the dried guaraná paste and rehydrated them in water to make a drink. Guaraná is available today in a variety of forms, including a very popular carbonated soft drink of the same name, a syrup, a powder, in capsules and in sticks made by the caboclos.
Cajú, or cashew apple, is a red or yellow fruit, resembling a bell pepper, with a pear-like taste. The cashew apple is not the real fruit, however, but the swollen flower stem. The true fruit is within the kidney-shaped sac dangling from it. Most unexpectedly, inside the sac, waiting to be roasted, is a cashew nut!