A foreign visitor walking through Praça Brasil, a leafy square in the Amazonian port city of Belém, might think that the whirring blenders at a dozen nearby food carts were creating the most authentic açaí bowls on earth.
That would make sense, for Belém is the capital of Pará state, the global epicenter for growing, picking and exporting açaí, the blueberry-doppleganger-turned-super-fruit headlining smoothie shops worldwide. But in Belém, the deep-purple fruit is mostly consumed as a savory side dish for fish and shrimp, and the concoction sold at Praça Brasil — called guaraná da Amazônia — is a protein-packed shake whose ingredients include cashews, peanuts and a syrup made from guaraná seeds, which resemble coffee beans in looks but trounce them in caffeine content.
The shakes are rarely available outside the Amazon. The same could be said for many dishes popular in this food-obsessed city of 1.5 million, those made from fresh ingredients — with Indigenous names like tucupi, jambu, taperebá and pirarucu — that are tough to come by in Rio de Janeiro, let alone outside Brazil. This fall, I visited Belém for three days and ate myself silly, hitting up 20 or so restaurants and snack bars, devouring food and drink so different from even the Brazilian norm that it felt like I had stumbled into some secret culinary kingdom.
Attractions in a Amazon port city
A “guaraná da Amazonia” costs about 20 reais, or just over $4 at 4.90 reais per dollar, and yes, it can be ordered with açaí blended in. But the shakes are best with bacuri, a fruit with apple-adjacent notes that seemingly everyone loves. Add it to the list of ingredients that you’ll find outside the region only in frozen form, if at all.
That’s because fresh bacuri, like many of the other regionally grown ingredients, travels badly. So do many tourists, whose only urban stop in the Brazilian Amazon is the not-quite-as-delicious Manaus, five days by boat or two hours by plane from Belém, and the most accessible base for venturing out to rainforest eco-resorts or on fancy boat trips.
That will change, though, as Belém ramps up its infrastructure to welcome tens of thousands of visitors in 2025 when it hosts COP30, the 30th edition of the United Nations climate change conference.
Visitors will find Ver-o-Peso, a humming market of Amazonian fish, fruit and Brazil nuts; upscale dining and shopping at Estação das Docas, set in revamped 19th-century riverside warehouses; and a historic center that ranges from charming to dilapidated and is home to the city’s only boutique hotel, Atrium Quinta das Pedras. There are also getaways ranging from day trips to nearby Combu Island for a taste of river life or overnight excursions to the 16,000-square-mile Marajó Island, home to countless water buffalo (and their meat and cheese).
While the broader region offers these and other rainforest-based adventures, the top three attractions in urban Belém are breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fittingly, one of the city’s most recognizable influencers is all about the food.
Marcos Antônio Gonçalves Bastos, known by a childhood nickname, Medici, has documented the local cuisine on his Instagram account. He compares Belemenses to Italians in how they care for and protect local tradition. “They say that something done a certain way should never change,” Medici said, citing the outrage among purists when someone added beets to the shrimp soup staple called tacacá to create a Barbie version this summer.
Real tacacá is cloudy yellow because its base is tucupi, perhaps the region’s most defining and addictive flavor, created centuries ago by Indigenous groups. Tucupi is made by juicing the bitter manioc root, letting the tapioca starch settle out as the liquid ferments, then adding spices and cooking it for days to remove the naturally occurring — and poisonous — hydrogen cyanide. The result is not so much sweet and sour as sour and sweet, and it pairs magically well with rice and fish, and stars in the local duck dish, “pato no tucupi.”
Sometimes tucupi acts like broth, other times it’s more a sauce or, when mixed with hot peppers and bottled, a condiment. Medici, who joined me for part of my eating extravaganza, just calls it “my blood.”
Tucupi becomes tacacá when combined with tapioca starch, small dried shrimp and another indispensable and omnipresent staple of Amazonian cooking: the jambu plant, whose leaves and sometimes flowers are added indiscriminately but deliciously to just about everything, including cocktails. It contains a natural anesthetic that causes pleasant numbness on your lips and tongue that counter-intuitively enhances other flavors. “Tucupi and jambu are like our ham and cheese,” said Medici. “If we could put them in everything, we would.”
Tacacá is such a popular street food that it often lends its name to street stands or informal restaurants serving a host of other dishes, much as a taco stand might serve quesadillas and burritos. I had lunch one day at Tacacá MJ, wedged between a watch-repair stand and a candy stand, run by an amiable young man named Diego Lublime, who keeps things as orderly as he can considering the eatery’s seating area is just a line of plastic chairs sharing a busy downtown sidewalk with speed-walking pedestrians.
“Have a seat! Have lunch!” he told me, and I got the combo plate of vatapá, caruru and maniçoba, topped with the predictable tangle of jambu. Vatapá is a creamy shrimp stew, caruru a shrimp and okra porridge thickened with manioc flour, and maniçoba a pork stew whose main ingredient is maniva, the ground leaves of bitter manioc cooked for about seven days to remove the cyanide. Dishes of the same names exist elsewhere in northern and northeastern Brazil, but with variations. In Bahia state, vatapá is principally a side dish made with peanuts and cashews, whereas in Pará it is a nut-free main course.
One axiom of adventurous eating is that if you like everything, you’re doing it wrong — and maniçoba is where I drew the line, finding it too bitter and its color and texture too close to cow manure. To find out if you disagree, I recommend benchmarking your likes and dislikes at Amazônia na Cuia, a sort of Paraense tapas restaurant where local classics are served in small gourds called cuias and cost from 18 to 49 reais. They include everything I had at Tacacá MJ, as well as tacacá itself and the famed duck with tucupi. By the end of the meal, your lips will be numb and you’ll know what you want to try again.
Sweet and savory delights
After I sampled some staple dishes, I tasted fruits most visitors have never heard of at Blaus, a local ice cream shop where flavors included taperebá, bacuri, tucumã and cupuaçu, a beloved cacao relative that to me tastes unpleasantly medicinal.
I also tried açaí in its velvety, savory side-dish form. The more refined options are at popular family and tourist spots like Point do Açaí or Ver-o-Açaí, but at Ver-o-Peso market, counter workers are running fresh açaí through a machine that strips its very thin layer of pulp from the pits and adds water. I figured out quickly that the açaí I’m used to is not really açaí but a candied version, much like another Latin American export originally consumed in bitter liquid form.
“I like to compare it with chocolate,” said Medici. “Chocolate isn’t chocolate cake. Chocolate cake has chocolate in it.”
At the Ver-o-Peso market, I opted for a place known for its seafood rather than açaí, the much-lauded Box da Lúcia. (Oddly, “box” is Portuguese for stall, with Lúcia’s occupying numbers 37 and 38). There I ordered a shrimp and fish plate with rice, beans and a refreshing, cole slaw-like salad, for 70 reais. Though the thick-crusted, juicy shrimp is Lúcia’s most famous dish, it was also where I fell in love with filhote, the flesh of juvenile piracui (a type of catfish) that is soft and tender if just slightly too firm to be called custardy.
But unlike other local fish like the tambaqui, filhote is wasted by deep-frying. At an upscale restaurant outside the city center called Restô da Villa Prime, Medici and I had a filhote appetizer called avuado, which is a plate of delicate and juicy mini-filets grilled and doused in olive oil and garlic. We also inhaled a steamy caldeirada, or stew, where filhote was cooked with, surprise, tucupi and jambu.
With so much good food available in the streets, it would almost seem unnecessary to go to upscale Belém restaurants like Restô da Villa. But with the current state of the Brazilian real, even the most precious spots are eminently affordable and go all out to stress local ingredients.
The Casa do Saulo, named after the chef Saulo Jennings, offers creative dishes like smoked pirarucu carpaccio — thin slices of the large pirarucu fish dolloped with jambu pesto and cupuaçu jelly and doused with chopped Brazil nuts (58.90 reais).
At the polished Santa Chicória, pirarucu is fancied up with “three textures” of manioc — chips, foam and tucupi — for 81 reais.
On their cocktail menus, both restaurants showcase one of my favorite ingredients — the taperebá, a fruit with a dark yellow flesh and creamy tropical flavor.
Taperebá is not exclusively Amazonian — the same species is known as “cajá” in other parts of Brazil, and as the hog plum or yellow mombin on some Caribbean islands. But Medici begs to differ: While it’s the same fruit genetically, he said “it’s influenced by the terroir — by variations in the soil and the climate” of the Amazon. And, considering how delicious the taperebá jam I took home now tastes on my morning toast, I am disinclined to argue with him.
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