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Amazon flavours - cuisine and fruits

By Robério Braga, ex-Secretary of Culture of State of Amazonas.
Source of images: Embrapa.

Read also:
Travel to the Amazon
Brazilian Cuisine

The flavor of Amazon is that of the many distinct and unique brazils, strewn over the continent of Brazil, which seduces and enchants, and is in the fruits, the liqueurs, the simplest of dishes and the forest treats served without the pretense of grand feasts.

The dishes created by the hands of the cabocas, simply, without touch ups or airs of mystery, are always very peculiar. Some of them involve hundreds of years of knowledge and practice, which the younger generations are relinquishing, but even so they are refined in their preparation and simple in their presentation.
The seduction of pachicá, a type of sarapatel made of turtle viscera, tender internal parts, fatty morsels and blood coagulated in vinegar, has the flavor of reminiscence, since it is no longer served at just any table. Chopped into tiny pieces, seasoned with chicory, murupi chili, salt and lemon, it is all served in the turtle shell, used as a casserole, and cooked over a low flame. Later on, the suruí flour, or water flour as it is called by the locals, is added. While it cooks, the aroma is a most revealing evidence, impossible to ignore.
But if you are truly imbued with a holy yearning to taste the dishes that spring from a beautiful turtle, try the mince, stew or sarapatel, which are indeed very special, aptly served at magnificent parties, unlike in the past, in the days of the empire, when it was the dish of simple people, sold in street markets.

Many of the dishes are served with piracuí, or fish flour, considered by some specialists as a complete food. Almost always made of acari, which is gutted, salted and dried in the sun, later shredded and put in the oven to complete the dehydration process, it stands on its own, but also accompanies other dishes at the table.
In addition to the main dishes, fish is used in delicious canapés such as fish baked over grates lined with banana leaves. And those who are not satisfied can try the Amazon caviar made of pirarucu ova, for example, placed in an earthenware bowl to marinate in wine, or preferably sugar cane vinegar. It becomes a paste and is placed on a sieve to drain, from which it follows to the smoking room. The fire that will slowly smoke it must be made of wood, preferably hardwood, without acid, curing it to the point desired by the cook or customer. The paste can be put in cans into a bain-marie, after which it will be ready to take in the journey to the party. There are, nonetheless, more urban flavors, which have incorporated other tastes and seasonings, casually ordered by watering mouths.
It is the case of the tambaqui, which can be served in fried or cooked stakes, with a tasty broth, seasoned with parsley, chive, onion, garlic, tomato and coloring. But, if not thus, it can be tambaqui baked in coal, called moquém by the natives, also in high demand.


There are also appetizing dishes made with pirarucu, a fish that can be very rich and therefore forbidden to women who have recently given birth, to those with open wounds, eye pains, stings, itches, eczemas and impetigo, but whose filet, depending on the season, can be found in any restaurant of the towns in the region. Pirarucu can be dried and fried, it can be made into pancakes, dried and stewed, and can even elegantly come to the table in tailcoat, when it becomes the highlight of important celebrations, mixed with cassava flour in a very special dish. It is a versatile fish. Pirarucu, dried or fresh, is fit for high dignitaries, and together with minced tambaqui, it is always welcome in the most elegant feasts, even at business luncheons, permeating endless talk of business and deals that are not always closed. And those who have time to savor can start with the pirarucu cakes.

In some cases, in order to enjoy the flavor of the Amazon you need to be patient and knowledgeable regarding the fish bones, because it is almost an art to get rid of them without choking. But this only demands expertise if the gourmet is facing a jaraqui, matrinxã, branquinha or sardine, which, in fact, are everyday dishes of the natives, who skillfully expel, discretely through the corners of the mouth, the many bones that are found profusely in these fishes.
And if you are unable to get rid of the bones, call a caboco who will know a special prayer to remove the fish bones from the back of your throat, either by invoking Jesus of Nazareth or calling upon the powers of Saint Braz, after all the table guests have twirled their plates, or by turning the coal in the fire that cooked the fish, or even by serving a generous portion of cassava flour or banana, which will surely do the trick.
That's why some prefer to serve the tambaqui casserole. After the fish is scaled and gutted, it is cut and cleaned with lemon in order to remove any rank smell. It is then boiled with slices of tomato, parsley, shallot, chives, onion and a little Portuguese olive oil. It is served with cassava flour and chili, murupi or malagueta, according to taste. Alternatively, it can be baked in live coal, and that is how visitors prefer it; baked in oven, stewed or even marinated, or served as dried tambaqui. Each dish has the luxurious touch of natural cuisine. If you to want to try something really special, you can choose from among hundreds of other tidbits, such as shredded pirarucu with pupunha rice, or the tambaqui mojicaf, and also the special purée, stuffed fish baked in the oven and cassava farofa, which, for some, don't even come close to the fried jaraqui, the stuffed sardines in banana leaves or pacu baked in the oven. And everything goes with açaí bread, and to top it all off you can try cream of cupuaçu or araçá-boi and even some banana-prata cake.
If the day calls for a dish of jaraqui, don't get alarmed with the talk that you hear at every corner of the town – after eating jaraqui you never leave here - because this is just a way of saying the truth and inflating the flavor of the Amazon fish.

Fruits of the Amazon

And the flavor of the fruits? When natural, freshly picked and promptly served, they give off the aroma of the forest and the many plants around them.

Pupunha is almost the bread of the caboco. It is served at breakfast and as an afternoon snack, and may often be the only food available on some days to a family dwelling in the more out-of-the-way and God forsaken areas. It varies in size and shape, about 2 to 5 cm with an orange mesocarp, and can be eaten cooked or raw, or as laminated flour. It is full of vitamin A and its tree grows to about 20 meters, all of it protected by inside thorns.
And tucumã? Delicious. Its tree is used in war, in the most cunning or skillful hunting, as food and even in children's play. The stem of this palm tree is used by the forest people to make bows, spears and certain arrow tips, considered appropriate for hunting small birds because they don't make wounds; the thorn can be used in lip, ear and nose piercing, a common tradition of the native people; the fibers have multiple uses. The fruit is unique: the round drupe is 4 to 6 cm in size, green, yellowish and orange, with thin, oily flesh, providing 100 times more vitamin A than the avocado – another very tasty fruit -, and three times more than the notorious carrot. It is used in play, since boys make their table football teams selecting the most qualified, robust and well-polished center-forwards and backs, which are always sung and praised in radio broadcasts that mimic the great world cup games.
The pitomba, commonly found in street stalls, in towns and fields, with its characteristic tang, joins the jenipapo in this world of delights. The jenipapo yields a dark-blue dye used in body-painting, and is used in refreshments, wines and compotes.


The cupuaçu can be used to make ice-cream, juice, dessert, salami, wine, liqueur and chocolate. Its seeds contain caffeine and theobromine. The cupuaçu is reaching the four corners of the world and apparently, some say, has a property registration abroad. Nevertheless, it is still being served in bowls, tin or aluminum cups, wooden mugs and sophisticated glasses, with a very Amazonian, therefore very Brazilian, aroma and flavor.
The guaraná – the real one – is not that bottled drink that exploits the sacred name blessed by the Indians. The real guaraná is nowhere near like it. The Amazonian guaraná is the true elixir of life, served among the mawé indians in a single wooden cup passing from one person to another with religious and social significance since the beginning of time.
If you prefer, help yourself to some açaí wine, graviola juice or party aluá and you can finish the rounds with a jenipapo liqueur, finely prepared, having been left in an infusion for eight days and lightly mixed with a small amount of a good quality cachaça.
And then there is the mamey , which can be eaten fresh used to make wines and soft drinks. Its sap is used to make insecticide and its leaves are an effective antipyretic agent. There is also the Brazil nut, an inflammable nut with its clear flames that light Indian huts during the long parties that go on for many days and nights. The Brazil nut can be eaten raw, used in local culinary and patisserie, it substitutes olive oil, lubricates the finest watch mechanisms and is even used in pharmacy and perfumery. Its beautiful tree reaches up to around 40 to 60 meters and has produced blood, sweat and tears in hinterland.

However, if you fancy a table full of desserts and sweets, think about the several varieties you can gather: the cupuaçu may be found in cakes, flans, sweets, jams, desserts, creams, mousse, salami, and in such a way that the recipe can be adapted to many other fruits. If you prefer, you may serve pupunha, as a flour, in cakes and flans; the well- known pineapple in tarts or special cakes; the buriti , craved by anyone who has tasted its dessert or its wine, as is the case with the guava, papaya, cassava and the arabu, which is prepared with turtle eggs, cassava flour and sugar to be served with a nice steaming cup of coffee.

Food and culture

Here and there, the typical popular food and the natural taste of the forest serves as wisdom, jokes, dreams, tails and horror stories and in the same way inspires poets and bards who turn it into legend, passion, jokes and dancing. Here the flavor is fuller, stronger as the storyteller recites and praises it with no modesty whatsoever around the fire. And many other ingredients help colour with innocence the speech of the man cooking the muqueca as he boasts about yesterdays catch.
The Amazonian flavor – very Brazilian – comes in all shapes and forms: it can inspire poetry, music, produce an electric shock in the form of a piraquê, nibble, hurt, cut, beat up in the form of an arraia (type of ray), the fish that moves around performing a unique ballet. The flavor of the Amazon requires a glossary to explain, within so many regionalisms, what is arubé, atura, beiju, curmatá, tipiti, and so many others that make up such unique local language.
The Amazonian flavor is also full of mystique and may even be present in ceremonies to expel bad spirits, spells, voodoo, witchcraft, in all sorts of therapeutic herbs and teas, in the hands of the medicine man to cure wounds, illnesses and pains. It is also present in engagement parties, weddings, altars, Saints' parties when the little villages see abundance and plenty of food amongst the devotees, balloons and folkloric celebrations.

It is the same flavor bringing into being a rich mythology explaining the origins of fire, of cassava, of tobacco, of the honey celebration, of the story of the old woman who gathered Brazil nuts, of the jaguar hunter and of the timbó legend. And if white people no longer serve grasshoppers as did the Amazonian Indians of the past, the giant tortoise, the alligator, the mussuã and tree frogs are dishes still served in the remoteness of the forest, although quite uncommonly found in more popular places for modern people where, instead, you will find matrinchão, pacu, pirapitinga, curimatá, acaru, mandy, tamatoá, piramutaba, jacundá, jahu, to mention only a few of the huge variety of local fish.
Going a bit further afield, amongst the humbler people you can even find the jandiá, grilled and served with water flour.

condiments of the Amazon
Market in Belém, Pará
Condiments of the Amazon

If you want to catch fire, burn your tongue and your throat, try the whole range of chilies found in beautiful colours and shapes such as malagueta, olho-de-peixe,de cheiro, Josefa, murupi, mata frade, rosa, chumbinho, camapú, cajurana, caçari, muruci, olho de pombo, comari, each one with its own distinct flavor and fit to go with a certain dish. It is well recommended, in order to make it milder on the palate, to quench the firechilies with forest fruits, some already popular in the towns and others more common by the river margins; you can choose peanuts, pineapple, araçá, bacuri, biribá, blue cocoa, ingá, pajurá, piquiá, purunga, taperibá and the sorva with its sweet, lovely flesh.

The flavor of the Amazon is present in the myths and stories about fishes, in Saints' celebrations, in promises and wishes, during the harvest season, in the social life of the fisherman, the healer, the spiritual guide, the medicine man of the forest, in the flour, by the river, at the ebb-tide, in the loneliness of the wakes, in the superstitions that haunt the imagination of the caboco, in the labyrinths of the blackwater, in sophisticated parties, in herbal medicines, in therapeutic baths used to cure so many ills, in children's play, on refined shop shelves, over the counter of local shops, in stores and street markets, amongst silver cutlery and crystal glasses, and even on snake bites with the taste and flavor of the beliefs and creeds of the Amazonian people.
Actually, those who arrived at the capital traveling through the dark waters of the river that kisses the land of the baré and of Our Lady of Conception, have undoubtedly passed by the island of Marapatá and that is where they left their prudishness, never to return. If after all this, the visitor decides to fish in the rivers of the Amazon region to have the taste of victory, he should not forget to take with him an alligator tooth as it avoids attacks of the big snake.

Caboco – a man from the Amazon region, born and bred in the forest. Regional way of speaking and writing the word caboclo.
Sarapatel – type of turtle soup made of turtle tripes cooked in its blood.
Pimenta-Murupi – one of the many types of chilies found in the Amazon region such as pimenta de cheiro, olho de peixe, mata frade and malagueta.
Pixé – bad smell.
Arubé - type of mustard made out of cassava paste, salt and a mild chili pepper.
Aturá – flat basket to bring things home from the plantations, specially cassava.
Beiju – type of Amazonian biscuit. Cake made of cassava starch. Regional food. There are many variations depending on the texture, moistness and cooking time.
Tipiti - cylinder made of a material present in the palm tree; this material is well woven and stretched at the ends compressing the paste and releasing a juice. It is used to make tucupi, cocoa wine and farinha d'água (water flour).
Aluá - beverage made of an infusion of coffee and ginger in cachaça (strong spirit made of sugar cane)

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