“My açaí is the bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb,” Vanessa Esplendorosa sings. “Marvellous, tasty, yummy, delicious, splendorous. My granola you want, my sauce you want, my shine you want.”
Sitting under the baking sun on Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema Beach, ‘Splendorous’ Vanessa (her real name is Vanessa Cabral dos Santos) continues singing her rhymes in Portuguese as she piles banana, strawberries, mango, kiwi fruit, granola, condensed milk, crumbly peanut candy and chocolate syrup onto my cup of frozen açaí. It’s a little show that has made her a beloved beach celebrity as she sells the wildly popular Amazonian super-berry puree, which has swept from the Brazilian jungle to health food cafes across the world.
The deep purple, ice cream-like dish made from the açaí pulp is lauded for its anti-ageing and energising properties, and above all, its distinctive deliciousness, which is like a mix of blackberries and chocolate. And Brazil produces up to 85% of the world’s supply of açaí (which is classified is a drupe, but more commonly referred to as a berry), more than 1.25 million tonnes per year – or enough to fill 500 Olympic swimming pools.
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With a cooler slung over her shoulder and a white T-shirt screaming ‘AÇAÍ’, Vanessa walks up and down Ipanema’s fiery hot sand near lifeguard tower Posto 9, brightening up everybody’s already sun-drenched days with her unwavering positivity. Videos that locals have taken of her rapping and singing have gone viral on YouTube (see 45 seconds in) and Facebook; and after a wave of local media stories this year, Rio de Janeiro music producers DJ Leco JPA and DJ Portuga were so captivated by her charisma that they offered her the opportunity to record a song.
Her ‘Funk do Açaí’ video clip released in July on YouTube quickly racked up millions of views. Instead of the usual sex, drugs and violence for which Brazilian funk music born in the favelas is famous, she gained a legion of fans for rapping about Brazil’s beloved berry instead.
“Açaí com paçoca soca soca soca soca,” Vanessa sings in the chorus, a play on words about the salty peanut candy she serves it with called Paçoca, and soca, which is the Portuguese word for punch. Açaí with a peanut candy punch!
Oozing the warmth that Rio’s residents, known as Cariocas, are famous for, and looking every bit the pro as she dances to the camera, I was shocked to learn that just a few short years ago, Vanessa was clinically depressed and shut off from the world. On a doctor’s advice, Vanessa’s partner Ana started taking her from their suburban home to the beach with açaí that Ana prepared for Vanessa to sell. At first, Vanessa told me, she would just sit and people-watch, not selling a thing. Once she was tired of watching, she walked up and down the sand and started to sell. Eventually, a spontaneity began reverberating from within as she started coming up with little catchy rhymes to sell her product. One sandy step at a time, she grew in confidence.
“Every time I saw a customer I was singing to them, coming up with something to rejoice that moment, to leave the person shining like a star and feeling cheered up,” she said. “I always bring good energy to my clients in my care, because as I came from a very dark world of depression and sadness, it helped me improve. And I could not be sad anymore; I was always connected to açaí and the climate of the beach, in the sun, in the sea and in the good energies that it brings.”
Every time I saw a customer I was singing to them... to leave the person shining like a star and feeling cheered up
She continued, “I had the opportunity to record the Funk do Açaí with two DJs to complete the circle of gratitude for everything that this fruit was doing for me, everything that my work was providing me and the places I was going, so I thought that it deserved a song, a funk.”
Now as she eyes a career in music, Vanessa’s story of how açaí helped bring her a new lease on life echoes the berry’s ancient indigenous mythology. Its name comes from a native Tupi word meaning ‘fruit that cries’. Those who are less imaginative say that’s because of the juices the fruit seeps, but legend says that – before açaí was featured in more than three million Instagram hashtags and counting – it’s because it is a fruit born in tears.
Before Portuguese ships sailed into Brazil, a large Tupi tribe lived on the banks of the Amazon River where today sits the city of Belém, the gateway to the Amazon, in the northern state of Pará. But the tribe’s ballooning population meant there was less and less food to go around. Watching his people starve, the tribe’s chief Itaki ordered that all newborn children be sacrificed to keep the population down until a more abundant food source could be found. He made no exceptions to this decree, even though his own daughter Iaçã was pregnant and would soon give birth to a beautiful baby girl.
The young mother cried for days after she lost her baby and prayed to their god Tupã to show her father some other way to save their tribe from hunger and suffering. One moonlit night, Iaçã heard a child’s cries, and peering into the jungle saw her daughter sitting at the foot of a palm tree. Arms outstretched, she leapt towards her baby. But just as suddenly as the infant appeared, she vanished silently in her embrace. Inconsolable, Iaçã collapsed onto the palm in tears, dying of heartbreak.
At sunrise, her body was found hugging the trunk of the palm, but her face now appeared serene. Iaçã’s dark eyes stared up to the treetop, which they saw was laden with small dark fruits. The tribesman climbed the palms and picked the berries, squeezing their thick, nutritious juices into their hands. Itaki, seeing it as a blessing from their god Tupã, named the berry açaí in honour of his daughter – her name spelled backwards. The order to sacrifice newborn children was lifted, and the Tupi tribe would never go hungry again.
Although separated by hundreds of years and kilometres, Iaçã in the Amazon and Vanessa in Rio both encapsulate why the world has fallen in love with açaí: rejuvenation. Packed with vitamins, protein, fibre, amino acids, healthy monounsaturated fats and up to 30 times more antioxidants than red wine, açaí is said to boost energy, strengthen the immune system, help muscle growth and fight the effects of ageing. With such a resume, it’s hugely popular with everyone, from the rich to the poor, in Brazil.
“Undoubtedly açaí was and is a food that we can describe as democratic in the sense that it has always been on the table, and certainly in the meal (because not everyone used tables) of the native peoples, settlers, and society of the rich, poor, civil, military, religious or non-religious, literate or illiterate,” said Professor Leila Mourão Miranda from the Federal University of Pará who has written a thesis on açaí.
In Rio, juice shops on practically every corner dish out sweet, frozen açaí with other fruits and a world of sweet toppings. But few açaí addicts outside Brazil know that their açaí bowls are about as traditional to the country as a ham and pineapple pizza is to Italy.
In Pará, where the majority of the berries are grown, açaí is a staple of the cuisine and is eaten as an accompaniment to fried fish and shrimp, with locals either pouring it on like a sauce or using it as a dip. Pará’s residents (called Paraenses), also enjoy açaí as a snack in a more natural style, with just a little sugar for sweetness and no toppings except for beads of tapioca flour or cassava flour. To them, added fruits, granola and everything else is just considered a distraction from the true açaí taste. I discovered this at a boteco (a small, casual Brazilian bar) called Tacacá do Norte in Rio’s Flamengo neighbourhood. It’s one of a small number of places in Rio where you can buy açaí in the Pará style, and for connoisseurs, it’s widely considered the best in the city.
It wasn’t until the ‘90s when sun-kissed surfers and gym junkies in Rio heard whispers of açaí’s mysterious health benefits, and added guarana syrup – made from the seeds of the Amazonian guarana plant, which is high in caffeine – to help preserve the flavour of the açaí juice and pulp after freezing it. This ultimately turned it into an energising snack and thus kick-started worldwide açaí fever.
But my friend Beatriz Daibes, a Paraense who moved from Belém to Rio last year to study, tells me that she wasn’t caught up in the hype of her new city’s take on her home cuisine.
“I prefer the traditional, no guarana syrup; I think the texture is better, creamier,” she said. “I think the Rio style is more like a mousse, an açaí ice cream than açaí really. And the one from the north, we don’t use syrup, but sugar.”
And what about that fried fish and shrimp combination, I wondered.
“It's tasty!” she said. “There are restaurants that have açaí as dessert, and also to eat along with the main dish like fried fish and shrimp. And it’s really good! It’s a blend of sweet and salty.”
Whether it’s Rio’s guarana-filled, ice cream-like version or the less-is-more, traditional style of Pará, Brazilians are spoilt for choice when it comes to açaí. Unfortunately for the rest of us, since highly perishable açaí is only grown in the Amazon, its pulp is either frozen or turned into powder for export. But in Brazil you’ll find it truly fresh, and only in Rio will you get it served to you on the beach with a side of singing and good vibes. And that just makes it taste even better.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story neglected to mention that açaí is classified as a drupe.
Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage.
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