Food In the Amazon – Belem Part One or How Did They Figure Out That Tucupi Had To Be Cooked For Seven Days To Not Be Poisonous?
“I have long believed that good food, good eating is all about risk. Whether we’re talking about unpasteurized Stilton, raw oysters or working for organized crime “associates,” food, for me, has always been an adventure.” Anthony Bourdain
When you think of eating food in the Amazon, your mind pictures a few scantily clad natives drinking from coconut bowls. That may happen deep in the Amazon but in the city of Belem they are taking the flavors, food and traditions of the Amazon and serving it to locals, Brazilians and tourists like me from all over the world.
Each of the dishes, ingredients, flavors, and aromas invite us to discover the mixture of the Portuguese, European, Hispanic, Indian, and African influences. Among the typical specialties of Belém you can find “Pato no Tucupi”, made with duck cooked in cassava juice and seasoned with “jambu. (restaurant La Em Casa)
“Vatapá” is a dish made with bread crumbs, ginger, pepper, allspice, peanuts, coconut milk, palm oil, and onion, with a creamy consistency. it is usually served with shrimp, fish, or beef and accompanied with rice. (La Em Casa)
Belém is the Amazon’s culinary capital, and the city’s signature dish, tacacá, is a fusion of the region’s key ingredients. When you mention that you have been to Belem (named for Bethlehem) to a Brazilian they always ask if you tried the tacaca. I was glad I knew what it was. Tacacá is is a soup . It mixes shrimp with tucupi, a thick yellow liquid extracted from the roots of the manioc plant, and jambu, a creeping plant whose leaves when covered with tucupi cause a pleasant tingling and numbness of your lips.
Manioc is also called cassava, yuca ( which is not yucca) or tapioca and is a staple of the Amazonian diet. The soup is served hot in cuias (hollowed-out gourds) and I brought some of the bowls home. One of the best places to have it is on the street at the stand of Dona M Do Carmo. It was amazing and one of the most delicious things I have eaten in Brazil.
Tucupi (which is cooked for some 12 hours to remove poisonous components) shows up in a lot of Amazonian dishes, such as pato no tucupi, an aromatic duck stew, and maniçoba, the Paraense (Belem is in the state of Para) equivalent of feijoada ( Brazilian signature dish). Different portions of pork and sausage are cooked together along with jambu the dark-green leaves from the manioc plant. (La Em Casa)
The story goes that the manioc plant has to be cooked for seven days to get rid of the toxins. This involved a lot of group discussion of how that came to be. When someone died after eating it the first day, did the natives decide to cook it for two days and when more died did they decide to try for three etc? How many people died before they came up with seven days and why did they keep trying? Were they using it on their enemies and then it did not work? Did someone forget to turn the fire off and got hungry?
The manioc dough (it’s a tuber) is pushed through a long woven basket like instrument called a tipiti to get the liquid out. You can buy them in Ver o Peso market on the Amazon River along with my bowls. Such dishes are often accompanied by arroz de jambu (rice flavored with jambu leaves) and farinha d’água, manioc flour that, having been left to soak in the river, has a soft, fluffy consistency.
The man holding the tipiti was our wonderful guide in the Amazon Osvaldo. I have many photos of Osvaldo’s hands holding something edible he picked up while we were in the market or rainforest. Unfortunately I was unable to make notes on my photos of what they were. I knew this would happen. I said I was going to include photos of his hands.
I am happy to say that all the tucupi i ate at every meal was cooked correctly. I am grateful to the Amazonian chefs for doing that .But how did they figure out that it took seven days to get the poison out?
Tenha Uma Boa Viagem,