Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Amazon Adventure! Part III.V: A Walk on the Wild Side (of the Kitchen)

Possibly the greatest adventure of all in our four days in the Amazon, was tasting the local cuisine. Our tour guide, Feliciano had clued us in to a couple of local favorites, and since I love to try new foods--especially local specialties--we decided to give it a go.

First on the list is a type of soup, called Tacacá , that is found only in the Amazon region. The ingredients can't be found anywhere else. Even my other Brazilian friends who have not traveled to Amazonas or Pará are not familiar with this dish.  But, it is wildly popular in this region. Commonly, it is served around 5:00PM (tea time), and apparently there are stands and carts on every corner around the city. Really, after a long, unbearably hot and humid day, who wouldn't feel refreshed with a steaming bowl of soup? 

Tacacá begins with a broth called Tacupi.  Do you remember the cyanide juice that I referred to in my last post? That's tacupi. This fact, I think, is very telling about Brazilians--they don't waste anything. (You squeezed some toxins out of a root, so that you wouldn't poison yourself? Heavens, don't discard that--let's figure out a way to use it!!)

Let's recap the process. Manioc (cassava) root is a staple in Brazil. It is used for many dishes, most notably, Farofa--a common accompaniment to rice and beans. The farofa we eat here in São Paulo state is white--processed from white manioc. One of the first things I noticed in Manaus was the yellow farofa we were eating. Besides the yellow color, it tastes a little different, and has a slightly different texture. I really liked the farofa here--crunchy and salty! Anyway, when the manioc is processed for the flour to make farofa (and other things), a liquid is pressed out of it. This liquid is toxic, and converts to cyanide in the body. According to my research, consuming the liquid from just two manioc roots can be deadly. Feliciano explained all of this to us at the manioc processing factory. He then suggested we try the soup. "The cyanide soup? Why not?!"  (Stupid tourists will try anything.)

So, they boil this yellow liquid "several times over" to rid it of it's toxic properties. Then, they let it cool. As it is cooling, a starchy sediment develops. This sediment, called "goma de mandioca"  (tapioca gum) is then reserved as the final Pièce de résistance for our soup. The clear yellow broth (tacupi) skimmed off the top is then boiled with salt, sweet peppers, and a wild relative of cilantro. There are two other main elements of the dish: salted dried shrimp (that are reconstituted before adding to the soup) and jambú (a native flowering herb with anasthetic properties).

Now we are ready to assemble the masterpiece. First, tacacá is always served in a hollowed out gourd called a cuia. The cuia is then placed in a hand woven basket to prevent burns to the hands. Traditionally, the soup is served without any utensils. Relatively recently, they added a small wooden stick to help you spear the shrimp and jambú. Any other utensil use is taboo. The vendor at our tacacá stand took one look at us, and quietly slipped two plastic spoons on the counter in front of us. You could tell it pained her to do so. (Stupid tourists!)

She ladled the piping hot tacupi broth into the gourd bowl, then she added diced onions, the jumbo shrimp (complete with skins and tails), and some long, leafy, steamed stems of jambú. Then, she put a glob of the tapioca gum on top. The tapioca gum has the appearance and consistency of thick mucous. Yum. Steph and I watched, horrified, as the slimy substance slowly oozed down to the bottom of the bowl. All eyes were on us as we argued over who was going to try it first. ("After you." ... "No, please, be my guest."...)

As the youngest, (and I feared the most responsible for this potential disaster), I took the plunge first. I can't adequately describe the flavors and sensations that erupted in my mouth. The broth, I thought, was very alkaline. The leaves of the jambú were sour and slimy. I had a whole mouthful of them, as there was no way to cut up the long stems before schlepping them into my mouth with the stick. I began chewing, and immediately, my tongue and lips went numb (the anesthetic effect of the jambú). This was a somewhat startling phenomenon. My guess is that they add this particular ingredient to the dish to make it easier to swallow the rest.

While I can't say that I found tacacá to be the most delicious dish I have ever encountered, it was very interesting and I'm glad I tried it. In fact, Steph and I took turns slurping down the whole bowl. I very generously gave the last swallow to my sister. (That's where the glob of tapioca gum lurks.) The look on her face when she thrust the bowl away from her lips was priceless.

You can see the snot-like tapioca gum on the right.

A dish full of surprises


Now, it was time for dessert. We were assured by Feliciano that  tucumâ fruit is the "Nectar of the Gods" and we absolutely HAD to try the ice cream of this flavor. So, like stupid tourists, we did. I guess I don't know what "the Gods" like to drink, but my ice cream tasted like rotting pumpkin. However, like good little girls, we finished all of our dessert:

Steph and I "enjoying" our tucuma flavored ice cream

I have been in Brazil for almost a year, and in that time, I have had the privilege of trying many different foods. But, I can honestly say that, the most unusual flavors (in my experience) are found in the Amazon--go figure.

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