Jun. 19, 2024

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From: New York Times, Feb 24, 2010

Açaí, a Global Super Fruit, Is Dinner in the Amazon


CAMETÁ, Brazil
CLUSTERED high up in the slender, tilting palms of the eastern Amazon, the little purple orbs known as açaí look mighty, like blueberries that took a very wrong turn out of Maine. These are no mere muffin makers, though.

Virtually unknown outside the Amazon two decades ago, and until 2000 not exported from Brazil — its major producer — açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-EE) is now an international celebrity, riding the wave of the antioxidant craze and rain-forest chic. On the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, surfers seeking an energy boost spoon açaí smoothies from bowls. In the United States, companies touting its antioxidant powers blend the fruit into Snapple red tea; Red Brick Pizza’s frantically trendy multigrain, whole-wheat artisan crust; and everything from dietary supplements to beauty products.

But for families who live here along the winding, interlaced rivers at the hub of açaí production, the fruit has long been a vital part of their diet, a cheap way to fill up and a taste of home. And now, for some, it is a source of newfound prosperity.

In places like Cametá, a town of about 117,000, and Belém, the capital of Pará State, a bowl of açaí pulp is a filling side dish especially valued by poorer families.

Unlike the pulp used in Rio’s smoothies, the kind here is not presweetened or frozen, but fresh from cylindrical machines known as batedores de açaí, "açaí beaters," that remove the thin layer of fruit from the pit. Most every neighborhood has stands or small stores where customers get a daily or weekly supply.

Belém’s most famous açaí market, the Feira do Açaí, near the city’s 17th-century periwinkle-colored Ver-o-Peso market building, bustles before dawn as wholesalers stack baskets of the fruit on the cobblestone square.

By 9 a.m., the countless stands around the city have opened for business, processing the fruit into thick, medium or thin varieties depending on how much water is added.

When the merchants are ready they hang red signs to indicate that açaí is for sale. As in towns throughout the region, in Belém residents pick up pulp by the liter to have with lunch or dinner.

Even some chain supermarkets have in-house açaí counters. Diego Lopes, a 21-year-old açaí processor at a Lider supermarket in Belém, says he has açaí with lunch and dinner every day.

"Think of it as a cheeseburger," Mr. Lopes said, explaining to an American reporter. "You can’t have a meal there without a cheeseburger, right?"

Açaí’s international reputation as an energy booster and diet aid tickles those who grew up with it as a caloric side dish.

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