Manaus: City of the Forest

The largest city (holding the highest population) on the Amazon river was founded in 1669 as the Fort of São José do Rio Negro. It was then elevated to a town in 1832 with the name of “Manaus”, which means “mother of the gods” in tribute to the indigenous nation of Manaós, while retaining the nickname of Cidade da Barra do Rio Negro, Portuguese for “The City of the Margins of Black River”.

Near Manaus, more 1000 miles from the mouth of its humble beginnings, the Amazon splits in two rivers, the colors of the two rivers side by side are clearly visible. The whitewater side of Rio Solimões flows from Peru and the Andes, and the dark waters of Rio Negro (Black River) journey from Venezuela. The Rio Negro (northern) branch of the Amazon is the color of strong tea, peaty brown and its comparative acidity means few mosquitoes. This dramatic intersection where the rivers come together is known as the Meeting of the Waters

The Meeting of Waters (Encontro das Águas) is the confluence between the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões. For 6 km the river’s waters run side by side without mixing. This phenomenon is due to the differences in temperature, speed and water density of the two rivers. The Rio Negro flows at near 2 km per hour at a temperature of 28°C, while the Rio Solimões flows between 4 to 6 km per hour a temperature of 22°C.

Mercado Adolpho Lisboa, also called Mercado Municipal, is a central marketplace of Manaus located on the shore of the Rio Negro. The market structure was constructed in 1883, based on a project from Gustave Eiffel workers. The Mercado is a copy of the old and famous Paris Les Halles market near the Forum des Halles. Apparently, the metallic structures that hold up the market were built in Paris and sent to Manaus by ship. You can find pretty much anything you would like in this market, but this is no tourist trap; the Mercado is a hub for locals to buy fruits, spice, fishes, meats and traditional Indigenous medications.

One of many stalls selling medicinal herbs

A variety of spices ranging from the spiciest chilly to a food coloring.

You can also find artisanal art.

Here, an Amazonian mask made from the scales of the Pirarucu fish (the largest fresh water fish in the world, more information below).

Fruits are equally widely available.

Unloading the morning’s delivery of watermelons.

Got bananas?

Tucumã, an edible palm fruit found all over the city and the market. Vendors peel the first layer of skin and customers buy them in packs, even eating them at the stand by peeling the hard pulp themselves. Reminded me of a chewy apricot.

Interestingly enough, the seed of the fruit was used by natives in the 1800s to make black rings, symbolizing marriage. Now, it represents support for the poor, and support for equality, social justice and human rights.

Abiu, another Amazonian fruit, tasting like a sweet caramel custard.

Due to the richness and variety available from the nearby rivers, fish is also the main product of Amazonian gastronomy.  The tambaqui, the pirarucu, the jaraqui and the tucunare are some of the main fish served locally. These are some of the largest freshwater fish on earth. The fishes are generally prepared with lemon, salt, herbs and spices and either grilled, fried or served in a sauce.

The market boasts a large fish section, all caught that very morning. Customers tend to stay loyal to their respective vendor, but there’s more than 20 to choose from.

Tambaqui, also known as the black-finned pacu is found only in the Amazon and Orinoco (Venezuela) basins. It is a large fish reaching about 1 metro in length and is shaped similarly to a piranha. What’s interesting aboutthis fish is famous because of its ribs, which are the same size and shape as pork ribs. Dishes of Tambaqui are served similarly to pork ribs – but this is much healthier, of course.

Vendor cleaning and filleting the Tambaqui in 1 minute.

How about a 40kg Tambaqui? I could barely hold it straight.

Ready to cook the Tambaqui (at Restaurant El Toro Loco)

Escabeche de Tambaqui (Poached Tambaqui with tomato and onion sauce) (at Restaurant Ki Tempero)

Tucunaré, also known as Peacock bass, is another freshwater fish native to the Amazon river. Most display three wide vertical stripes on their bodies and a spot on their tail fins that resembles the eyes on a peacock’s tail feathers.

In terms of taste, their flesh is white and sweet when cooked, and has very little oil, making it similar in taste to snapper or grouper. Also, they are not excessively bony.

Grilled Tucunaré with fried bananas (at Restaurant Canto Da Peixada)

Pirarucu is a living fossil fish and still remains to be the largest freshwater fish in the world. Reaching over 2m in length, it is the most sought out fish in South America. Commercial fishing of the Pirarucu was banned by the Brazilian government, but fishing is still allowed in remote areas of the Amazonian basin. Because the fish produces large boneless fish steaks, it is considered a delicacy in the state. I’ve mentioned the Pirarucu previously in my previous post, here’s a link back to the interesting Pirarucu legend.

Grilled Pirarucu, the ‘codfish of the sea’ (at Restaurant El Toro Loco)

I find that the best way to cook the fish is to simply grill it to get the true taste and texture of the fish. But here, many people like to serve it with sauce. Why not try?

Pirarucu ao Molho de Camarão (Pirarucu fish with Shrimp sauce, consisting of coconut milk, shrimp stock and herbs) (at Restaurant Canto da Peixada)

Surubim aka. Tiger Shovelnose Catfish (Sorry Seabass, Surubim is my new favorite fish) is a tiger catfish from the Amazon. The fish belly contains a lot more fat than the average fish making the flesh more moist and soft. It surprisingly doesn’t have a fishy smell (but that could be due to freshness and the fish is more watery. 

Grilled Surubim (at Restaurant El Toro Loco)

Tasty fruits, herbs, peppers and ingredients made from manioc, such as flour, also compliment the flavorful and healthy regional cuisine and many exotic fruits such as Cupuaçu, Açaí and Graviola can be enjoyed fresh or in ice cream and sweets.

Skina Dos Sucos (“Juice Corner”), is a local joint in the center of Manaus. Skina Dos Sucos serves every single fruit juice you can imagine, fresh without sugar, or with milk. I literally came here every morning because 1. it’s a local place and it’s always packed, 2. the juice is so refreshing, 3. the price is cheap.

I tried different types of juice mixes. Here’s what stood out the most.

Guarana (the fruit color ranges from brown to red and contains black seeds covered by white arils – kind of look like scary eyeballs).

Artisanal art of the Guarana fruit

However, the juice in Brazil is widely used, typically in their best-selling soft drink (more than Coca Cola), Guaraná. I can’t compare the taste to other fruits, but it is slightly nutty, fruity and naturally holds a form of caffeine called Guaranine.

Guarana is also found in Açaí na tigela (“açaí in the bowl”), a fish made of mashed açaí palm, served like a smoothie, topped with granola and banana – the best morning breakfast in the world. The server even gave me a side of tapioca, but I think it’s better without.

Not surprising, people in Manaus eat a lot of Tapioca..and I mean a lot..They sprinkle it on everything. Here, Tapioca com Queijo (Tapioca and Cheese)

The typical couple – açaí and guarana juice

Laranja e  Mamão (Orange and Papaya – good for digestion)

Cupuaçu (tropical fruit tasting like a mix of banana and pear but smells like pineapple and chocolate…it is a cousin of cacao).

Sick of tasting fruit in liquid form, perhaps you can opt for crunchy banana chips or fried banana (naturally sweet, or can add caramel). The stand lies right outside Skina Dos Sucos.

Because of its location next to the Amazon rain forest, it is one of the starting points for boat  into the surrounding jungle.

There are several trips you can take to visit the Amazon, it all depends on what you want to see. Since people living in the Amazon depend a lot on the fishing industry, it was obviously important to see what other produce was available outside the city walls. In a local market, in Porto CEASA (another fishing and transfer port for people living on the other side of the Amazon river), we encountered other types of fish.

Piranha Vermelha (Red-Bellied Piranha) is a local delicacy here in the Amazon despite being one of the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. Every restaurant serves it; mostly in stews as the flesh is quite tough and rumor has it, they are an aphrodisiac. 

Pacu, a freshwater fish related to the Piranha but slightly larger. Their flavor is comparable to that of hybrid striped bass, tilapia, and rainbow trout, but superior to catfish. In South America, pacu are prized for their sweet, mild flavor.

Silver Arowana, also known as monkey fish (due to its ability to jump out of the water and catch its prey). 

We then took a small but sturdy speedboat through the canals of the Amazon to see wildlife and what/how local people eat.

Seeing floating favelas (literally floating slums in the Amazon river), schools and churches was disheartening and many of these families (some blood related) live on the catch of the day which include the fishes described above.

One of the main features of the tour was fishing the famed pirarucu fish. In Lago Catalão (Catalão Lake), you can fish Pirarucu and see the muscular fish from close. I thought they looked pretty scary, I wouldn’t want to be swimming and see them in the water.

The bait: Jaraqui fish

The Pirarucu heads ready to grab the bait.

Me vs. the Pirarucu 

Pirarucu scales are dried and then sold as souvenirs. They are also widely used in artisanal art.

Result… Pirarucu 1: Jade 0

The Amazon wildlife is definitely varied, with spottings of snakes, sloths, monkeys, lizards and birds alike. It was a definite experience into the jungle, both personal and culinarily-related. I felt so small compared to the giant Amazon rainforest. Manaus sits at the center of the rainforest and I always ask myself if one day the animals will roam in the city. For now, it remains to be a bustling cidade with fish and tropical fruits its’ main exports. 

My experience in the Amazon has ended only partly. In the next week, I will be working with Felipe Schaedler the young 25-year old Chef and owner of Banzeiro (in English, ‘waves’), voted consecutively as the best restaurant serving Amazonian food in the whole Brazil, since it opened 2 years ago. At the restaurant, I hope to learn the many different produce he uses in his recipes, how to prepare them, how to cook them and how to serve them to the clients. Stay tuned!


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