Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Acai berry

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The Acai berry (pronounced Assahee) used to be unknown outside the Amazonian region until the mid 80’s, even in Brazil.

Who introduced the Acai to Rio, and to the rest of the country, was a tiny restaurant of Northern food located by coincidence on the same block where I grew up in Copacabana, the Arataca.

The place has grown and has spread throughout Rio but, at least until I last went there, the original small and sweaty “boteco” where everything began was still there on Domingos Ferreira Street near Siqueira Campos with the same staff from those early days.

The way it was served was typical from the Amazon, and quite different from the way one sees it in health shops throughout the world. It was a thick, dark, almost muddy sort of a porridge mixed with a sort of a white cous-cous looking thing made of softened tapioca.

In the early eighties it was discovered by Jiu Jitsu fighters and by weight lifters as being highly caloric and healthy; it is a distant relative of the avocado. It was from these guys that the berry reached the international health food scene recommended by several celebrities.

As it rots fast it is mainly exported as frozen pulp and usually reaches the consumers mixed with all sorts of different healthy additives and other fruit. What they get tastes very different to the Arataca’s strange but tasty exotic porridge that we discovered decades ago.

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6 thoughts on “Acai berry

  1. arnaldo on said:

    Not to nitpick but Reila Gracie, in her book “Carlos Gracie, o criador de uma dinastia”, credits him with starting the açaí fad in Rio. Although places like Arataca, and the many others like it throughout the city—there was one inside Galeria Condor, in Lgo do Machado, for instance, that offered all the typical Amazonian fruit–must have been serving it for ages before then, no doubt.

  2. Is Reila Gracie, the originator of the Gracie Dinasty? It may be that he took acai before most people, but the fad only happened in the 80’s and the Arataca and the place in the Galeria Condor date way before that.

  3. arnaldo on said:

    Nope, that would be Carlos Gracie, who was raised in Belém, where he would have been exposed to açaí (according to the book) as a child, which he would later incorporate to the Gracie Diet, which ended up becoming popular among Zona Sul Jujitsu fighters and surfers. And which, Reila contends, the Gracies would “import” from Pará. Of course that doesn’t preclude places like Arataca from selling it while all this was taking place, too. I remember falling in love with the juice and ice cream of cupuaçú as a kid, which later I couldn’t find anywhere when I finally went to Amazonas and Pará, circa 1981. Out of season, they would tell me. While today I can enjoy a nice açaí smoothie—purchased at Costco, of all places—as I write this. Things change…

    • I remember going to his academy on Visconde de Piraja street when I was a kid but I don’t recall seeing any acai there nor did he talk about it when he tried to convince me about the advantages of Jiu Jitsu over Judo (I stuck with Judo because the academy was closer to where I lived). Probably it was part of the diet that he and his sons had at home and therefore when the Gracies became the kings of Rio’s Zona Sul’s streets and of the Octagon in LA they made the berry popular in Brazil and in the world.

      This happened in the eighties; before that, for the general public, acai was an exotic and dark porridge that only people from the North had and that no middle class person would venture into. I guess you live in the US (Costco is bigger there than in the UK), here the acai we have access to hardly resembles what one gets in Brazil, and what is served in regular places in Brazil is also not very similar to what one gets in places like Arataca or in the galeria Condor, and probably in Belem.

      Anyways.. it is great to ground break into Acai history🙂

      • arnaldo on said:

        I was a judoca too! Anyway, your suspicion is correct, I do live in the Northeastern US. A few years ago Sambazon, a company from Southern CA (where else?) started marketing açaí in the country. A few other brands jumped on the bandwagon and today you can get the frozen pulp in any major metro area. BTW, haven’t read the book yet, but you’re doing a great job on FB and the blog, keep it up!

  4. I suspect the distribution of Acai in Europe is done from Portugal. There are a lot of products using acai too, but they have nothing to do with what we know. Anyway thanks for the compliments, it’s not easy to keep both running but commentaries like yours make it worth while.

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