Amazon Base Camp: Belém

Belém (in the state of Pará) is at the mouth of the Amazon and is a major reference in a visit to the northern Brazilian Amazon. Belém helps you get a feel of what to expect in the Amazon basin. Belém, like Manaus (capital city of the Amazonas state) is a jumping-off point for those seeking Amazon adventures. It is also one of Brazil’s busiest ports — about 100 km upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. The river is the Pará, part of the greater Amazon river system, and the city is built on a number of small islands intersected by channels and other rivers.

Synonymous with Belém itself is the sprawling Mercado Ver-o-Peso (meaning check the weight –  derived from the Portuguese habit of weighing all merchandise in order to calculate tributes to the crown), which stretches out along the river.


Just as Belém is the gateway to the Amazon rainforest, the market serves an essential link between the city and the jungle selling not only fish but holds an immense bazaar of Paranese specialties, fruits, vegetables, live animals and artisanal products.

The market is somewhat ramshackle and chaotic. Yet the colorful jumble adds to the adventure of wandering through the labyrinth of stalls where you’ll encounter exotica ranging from cobra teeth and pirarucu tongues (used by Indians as a kitchen grater) to herbal potions guaranteed to make you filthy rich or lucky in love.

Herbs and seeds to plant (100 different kinds)

Brazil nut (Castanhas-do-Pará) was sold at every corner of the market. Men and women were chopping off the shell with large machetes, selling them at 15 reais per kilo.

Vendors were selling typical (but to me, never seen before) Amazonian fruits. it was only a sneak peek as to what I would encounter in the Amazonas state.

Urucum - the copper color is typically used for coloring

Inga, the "ice-cream bean"

Similar feel to cotton-balls, the custard-like taste is overshadowed by the large bitter seed

Bacuri Pari - sweet with acidic kick

So sweet, it reminded me of Fruit Loops...Yes fruit loops

Aside from the gorgeous jumble of fruits, fish, spices, and ceramics, one of the most interesting sections is the area devoted to indigenous herbal remedies that will cure whatever ails you—physically or spiritually. The women who hawk these potions, known as mandingueiras, swear by the miraculous recipes that have been passed down through generations. They range from powdered vulture’s liver (great for a hangover) to the bottled genitalia of a boto, or pink river dolphin, which is purported to be a foolproof love potion.

Another example, one that is famously used by Chef Alex Atala (with whom I’m going to work with in São Paulo) is called Pripioca. Pripioca, until recently was only used in the cosmetic and perfume industries but now has become a new culinary ingredient. It has a woody, soft and peppery smell.

Fresh vanilla, as fresh as it gets! It’s conserved in cereal liquor. Never have I seen it so fresh!

Street vendor and fresh vanilla

Although it has no curative properties, a Ver-o-Peso best-seller is extract of pau-rosa, an Amazonian tree whose bark is one of the main ingredients in Chanel No. 5 perfume.

Chopping the pau rosa

Since the city is a gateway to the Amazon through the massive and unrelenting river; one of the main features of the market was fish.

Fish is the king of the Amazonian cuisine. There are dozens of exceptionally tasteful species of freshwater fish: the pirarucu (the largest world freshwater fish), the tambaqui, are good examples. They are big fishes, almost boneless, delicious when grilled over charcoal but also retains good flavor when cooked in soup.

The pirarucu is a very large Amazonian fish that can measure up to two meters long. Its scales are large and hard enough to be used as nail files. Pirarucu meat is tender and is used to make a typical dish of our region. It may be prepared in several other ways also. The meat is often salted and dried in the sun. Either fresh or dried it makes delicious recipes.

I found the legend of the Pirarucu to be quite interesting as it portrays the characteristics of the fish very well. The Legend below:

“Pirarucu was an indian who belonged to the Uaiás tribe that lived around the Lábrean plains in the Southwestern Amazon. He was a brave, but heartless warrior, even though Pindarô, his father and chief of the tribe, was a good man.

Pirarucu was full of vanities, egoism and excessively proud of his power. While his father visited with friendly neighboring tribes, Pirarucu took advantage of his absence to take village people hostage and execute them for any reason. He also criticized the gods.

Tupã, the god of the gods, observed Pirarucu for a long time, until, tired of the man’s behavior, he decided to punish PirarucuTupã called Polo and demanded that he spread his most powerful lightening in the whole area. He also called Iururaruaçú, the goddess of torrents, and demanded that she provoke the strongest torrents of rain over Pirarucú, who was fishing along with other indians on the margins of the Tocantins river, not so far from the longhouse.

The fires of Tupã were seen throughout the forest. When Pirarucu saw the wild waters of the river, and heard the voice and felt the hate of Tupã, he just ignored them with a laugh and crazy words. Then, Tupã sent Xandoré, the demon that hates men, who threw lightenings and thunder that filled the air and cut it with sparks. Pirarucu tried to escape, but while he ran among the falling branches and trees, a lightening bolt sent by Xandoré, struck into the heart of the warrior who refused to ask for forgiviness.

All of those who were with Pirarucu ran from the jungle in total fright, while the body of Pirarucu, still alive, was taken to the depths of the Tocantins river and transformed into a giant and dark fish. Pirarucu remained there and for a long time he was the terror of the region.”

Also exceptional are ‘smaller’ fishes as surubim, jaraqui, acari and filhote. The freshness and the special flavour of all those species of Amazon fish make the dishes based on them truly glorious. They are usually served grilled, but they can also be fried, or presented in tomato sauce, coconut milk, or typically Amazonian, stewed in tucupi (a true marvellous sauce, made of fermented manioc juices – more information below).

Surubim

Tamuata fish - armor scale and yellow flesh

Filhote (less than 60 kg, changes name exceeding 60 kg: "Piraiba")

Following the steps of Anthony Bourdain, who filmed his Amazon episode in the same market, we decided to try the fish raw. After attempting to explain to the merchant what a carpaccio cut was (he was trying to sell us 1 kg of fish), he finally understood and sliced a piece of the belly. What a spectacular taste and freshness. The flesh literally melted in your mouth, was soft and sweet like hamachi (yellowtail) and even had a nutty sensation at the end. Boy, could this wow the world if it was exported!

At Lá em Casa, the city’s best regional restaurant headed by the daughter of deceased chef, Paulo Martins, we got to try out cooked filhote. It looked like a codfish, but the flesh is so delicate, the fish has to be left a bit undercooked or else it reaches a texture similar to chicken breast, dry and crumbly.

Also tried was Caruru (made with okra, dried shrimps, dendê oil, and ground cashews – a staple of Amazonian and Bahian cuisine).

Talking about fish, the market also features cooked varieties of its produces with about 100 stalls jam-packed next to each other selling the food to locals.

One local dish was a deep-fried dorade (seabram) served with Açaí (a nutritional berry fruit). When the vendor gave me the entire bowl of Açaí, I asked myself how I would finish it, as though it is a berry, it is quite heavy. It was an unusual dish, I only gotten used to Açaí with breakfast – bananas and granola to be exact. Here, it had absolutely no taste, while the fish was salted and deep-fried. I didn’t get how they could be eaten together but then the customer next to me gave me the communal bowl of tapioca grains, farofa and sugar. Ah, yes I was asking myself whether it would be better with some kind of taste. It was…but it was too much for me. Later on, while walking through the stalls, I saw people of all ages eating bowls and bowls of Açaí as if it was water. Despite, the interesting match in the dish, I think I’ll just stick to my sweet Açaí for breakfast.

In the meat area, stalls serve it with sides of rice or spaghetti. You can choose between grilled chicken, roasted pork and carne asada (dried meat). All stalls lay out communal tapioca and farofa (fried manioc flour)

Pork and dried meat

Chicken on a stick

Manioc is also a major component of Amazonian cuisine, besides the Amazon fish. Many dishes include the manioc, but in the Amazon it is the base for the exotic sauce of tucupi. A traditional Brazilian sauce, tucupi is made from juice extracted from the manioc root. Yellow in color, the sauce is served over duck and fish, and it is used as a base for soups. The sauce is considered a basic element of Para’s cuisine. The recipes for it have been developed and used over many generations, and still remain popular and sought out by both locals and tourists. After being squeezed through the tipiti, the juice is left to “rest” so that the starch separates from the liquid (tucupi). Poisonous at this stage due to the presence of cyanide, the tucupi is boiled for hours – a process which eliminates the poison. After it is put through a rigorous and lengthy boiling process, the poisons will no longer be present. What is left is then used to create the popular sauce.

A deadly combination? Actually, surprisingly sweet.

Tucupi (poisonous, if not cooked enough) with pimento de cheiro, one of the hottest chili in the world

Jambu is a leafy green much used in the cooking of the state of Pará, located along the lower reaches of the Amazon river system, and which is native to that region. It’s also known as agrião-do-pará which means “Pará watercress” and it is from this name that its English name “paracress” derives. Another name in English for this Brazilian native plant is “toothache plant.” This is due to an interesting medicinal property that jambu has, and refers not to the fact that the plant causes toothaches, but that it cures them. Jambu contains the compound spilanthol, which has the property of numbing toothaches and which is a component of a number of proprietary toothache creams and remedies. The anesthetic effect is jambu is part of the culinary mystique of the plant as well, and in Pará chopped jambu leaves are added to a number of dishes not just for the flavor they have, but because of the numbing or tingling effect they have on the mouth. This effect causes a cooling feeling in the mouth as well, and jambu is considered to counteract hot chile peppers – because of the anesthetic effect, the burning sensation from chiles is lessened. In Brazil, culinary use of jambu is mostly restricted to the Amazonian rain forest, and outside this region it has limited use in cooking and gastronomy.

In the market, they even sell the Jambu fruit. Neutral and grassy texture at taste, your mouth becomes immediately numb and tingling for several minutes. There is no heat, just a numbing sensation. Interesting what we could do with this dish.

Both Manioc and Jambu are widely used in Amazonian food. Here are some examples:

Maniçoba, a dish including various parts of pork, sausage and chicory leaves (besides the manioc). Usually it is made with leaves of the Manioc plant that have been finely ground and boiled for a week (at least four days with the intent to remove the hydrogen cyanide that contains). To these boiled leaves (maniva), salted pork, dried meat, and smoked ingredients, such as bacon and sausage, are added. The dish is served with rice and cassava meal (farinha). People usually eat “maniçoba” during the Círio de Nazaré, the city’s largest religious festival that takes place in October.

Ingredients for the dish

Maniva - after it has been cooked for 5-7 days

Maniçoba

Pato no tucupi (duck in tucupi served with jambú).

The duck is first boiled or roasted and is then shredded. Before adding the duck, garlic, chicory, and basil are added and cooked into the sauce, creating a deep savory flavor. The thin pieces are added to the sauce and then boiled before the dish is ready to serve.
Pato no tucupi is served over fluffy white rice. It is also served with a starchy flour called farinha d’agua, which is made from manioc that has been allowed to ferment. Commonly, hot pepper is added as seasoning. The dish is served piping hot and is recognized for its distinctive flavor.

We got to try Lá em Casa‘s famous Pato no Tucupi (voted as 2011 best Pato no Tucupi in Brazil)

Tacacá (shrimp soup served with dried shrimp, yellow peppers, jambú and tucupi)

Tacacá  is a common food sold by street vendors and local restaurateurs and is another dish made with tucupi. 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 acuia, a bowl that is carved out of a local species of gourd and decorated with traditional Portuguese motifs. It is a popular favorite in the state. Made from a base of tucupi paste, it is a thick soup. Most often shrimp and jambu are added to the soup. The combination of the sauce and the jambu causes a tingling and a numbness in the the mouth. This effect is caused by the highly acidic nature of tucupi and the jambu when combined. Tucupi is a popular addition to this regional food, and many people seek it out not only for its numbing effect but also for its distinctive taste. 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, 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. 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.

Phew. That was a long explanation. Now, get ready for my story trying to find the best Tacacá in Belém. On Avenida Nazaré, near the Basilica that hosts the biggest religious festival in Brazil every year, 5 or 6 street vendors boasts the best Tacacá in town. By word of mouth and having watched Anthony Bourdain’s Belém episode on the Travel Channel, I knew that the best Tacacá was sold by an elderly lady by the name of Maria do Carmo Pompeu dos Santos, or Dona Maria for short. Trying to find her stand is also a bit difficult. At the first stand we could find, we asked if Dona Maria was around. “Yes, I am Dona Maria”, said the young girl, no older than 18 years old. Little did she know, I knew Dona Maria was an elderly lady so we moved on. At the next stand, we asked again the same question, and the street vendor replied “Yes, Dona Maria is my mother, here she is”, though this woman was much older than the first, she was in her 50s and skinny. I knew it wasn’t her because Dona Maria was shorter and had big hips. On our third try, we saw police standing in the street eating the very dish I was seeking and asked if they knew who the real Dona Maria was and explained to them the story. The four cops laughed and finally I got the answer I was looking for. “Yes, she has the best in town but she only opens at 4.30 until late at night”. They had also mentioned the arrival of a TV show with a large silver-grey haired man with an American accent who came to try out her Tacacá. It had to be none other than Anthony Bourdain. “Yes, Anthony Bourdain, very tall man” we said. “Yes, Anthony BOUDAIN NOIR”. We just laughed.

Dona Mari’s business is better known as Tacacá do Colégio Nazaré because it stands on the sidewalk across from Colégio Nazaré. 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. Delicious!

In the taxi ride to one of the historical sites, our taxi driver recommended a street vendor who sold the best pernil (roasted pork shoulder) sandwich in town. Obviously, we tried it out and boy was it amazing; the best I have ever had, hands down; and a few blocks away from the central docks.

Sweet, succulent and crispy pork with grilled onions on a hot bun. Perfect. She opens until 2 am, with her young son who serves drinks and condiments to the sandwiches.

Weather in Belém is truly tropical. Despite the fact that the rest of Brazil is in winter, the people of Belém tell me it is summer time. Every day the sun shines brightly on the city, raising the temperature to 33 degrees celsius (though it feels more like 40 degrees) but in the later afternoon, it paves the way for rain to cool off. Nearby the famous market, is Estação Das Docas (“Station of the Docks”), a complex of three early 20th-century riverfront warehouses transformed into a modern commercial space, complete with a small theatre, shops and restaurants offering al fresco dining with a view of the Amazon river. One of the more interesting restaurants and bars is Amazon Beer.

The bar, and actual real ale micro-brewery in the warehouse, offers a variety of Amazon beer which you can sample at a reasonable price.


Out of 5 varieties, we tried 3.

The first was Amazon Forest, a light Brazilian pilsen with light flavors.

The second was Amazon red, a lager incorporating stronger malt flavors.

Finally, Bacuri Beer, from the Bacuri fruit, it tasted and smelled like rose, something we did not appreciate as much.

I cannot think about my journey ending, as it has just begun. Part 2 comes up next with encounters in Manaus (Amazonas’ state capital) with local produce of various kinds as well as a summary of my experience working at Banzeiro, crowned as the best restaurant in Brazil to serve authentic Amazonian food in an haute-cuisine setting. Here we go!

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