Exotic Fruits From the Amazon


AÇAÍ, BACURI, AND CUPUAÇU. Do you know what these words mean? You may, if you live in Brazil. They are the names of three exotic fruits from the Amazon region. Brazilians particularly enjoy the unique flavors of these fruits in frozen desserts. But they are used in other ways too. Let us get acquainted with these remarkable fruits from the jungle.

The Nutritious Açaí

The açaí tree (Euterpe oleracea), a slender tropical palm, thrives in humid floodplains and swamps and especially in the mouths of the Amazon and Tocantins rivers in the state of Pará. Along Brazil’s Atlantic Coast, it grows from Pará State to Bahia State. When you are in açaí territory, likely your feet are standing in water and your forehead is perspiring. The açaí palm’s thin but sturdy trunk rises to a height of up to 75 feet [23 m], with a crown of leaves at its top.

From August to December, the palm is heavy with six to eight bunches of açaí, each holding from 700 to 900 cherry-sized fruits. But how does one get the açaí down from way up there? Some climbers weave fibers from shorter açaí trees into a strap. The climber puts his feet into the strap and  presses it against the trunk. With his feet braced securely against the tree trunk, he places his hands above his head, pulls himself up, and plants his strapped feet higher and higher up the trunk until he reaches the top. There, he lops off a bunch. Does he throw it down? No, that would ruin it. The way he came up is the way he goes down, only this time balancing the fruit.

How is açaí prepared? Eduardo, a young man from Pará, explains: “My mother put the açaí fruit in a cooking pot of warm water. Then she stirred the fruit until the skin and the thin layer of deep-blue pulp separated from the big seeds.” The fruit is high in calories and rich in iron, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins B1 and B2. No wonder açaí is sought by athletes for building strength and by mothers as nourishment for their children! Many Brazilians like drinking açaí mixed with water, sugar, and cassava starch. Eduardo likes açaí as a condiment on dried shrimps and manioc. Açaí is also crushed in hot water and passed through a sieve, producing a thick aromatic liquid that is served as juice. That, though, is not the last use of açaí.

More can be done with the açaí palm. Palmito, or cabbage palm, a soft, white substance found in the terminal bud of the tree, is a favorite delicacy used in salads. The roots are made into medicines for killing parasites, and the fibers are fashioned into brooms. The leaves feed the animals or are used to make paper, and the tree trunk also provides excellent wood for construction.

The Bacuri and the Cupuaçu

The bacuri (Platonia insignis) is an ornamental tree, standing 60 to 100 feet [20 to 30 m] high. Its canopy is shaped like an upside-down cone. The fruit is about the size of an orange and is oval in shape, with a thick, lemon-yellow skin. Wrapped around seeds, the white, sticky pulp is sweet-sour and perfumed. The juicy pulp brims with phosphorus, iron, and vitamin C. Brazilians blend bacuri into syrups, jellies, compotes, and beverages. The oily, reddish-black seeds are not thrown away but are used to treat a variety of skin conditions. The yellow wood of the bacuri tree is used as lumber in construction.

The cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum) is a relative of the more familiar cacao plant (Theobroma  cacao). The fat in cupuaçu seeds is similar to cacao butter, or cocoa butter, which is used to make chocolate. Although the cupuaçu grows naturally in the steamy environment of the Amazon basin, it is cultivated throughout Brazil. The tree has adapted especially well in the coastal state of Espírito Santo.

First the cupuaçu tree grows a chestnut-brown bark, which is strong enough for timber. Then, in its eighth year, the tree bears clusters of flowers and fruits. From its long branches covered with rust-colored leaves hang fuzzy, brown oval-shaped fruits. Each fruit weighs between two and three pounds [1 and 1.5 kg]. At first, you might turn your nose up at its strong smell. But the white, fragrant, acidic pulp is excellent for making sorbet and other desserts.

If you ever visit Brazil, get acquainted with its many unique fruit flavors. Ice cream shops in Brazil’s bigger cities are adding more and more tropical flavors to their list. Granted, ordering sorbet with names such as jaca, umbu, biribá, buriti, mangaba, murici, sapoti, cajarana, graviola, maracujá, or jabuticaba may twist your tongue. But their flavors will please your palate!

[Picture on page 15]


[Credit Line]

André Valentim/Tyba/BrazilPhotos

[Picture on page 15]

An “açaí” harvester on his way up

[Credit Line]

Lena Trindade/BrazilPhotos

[Pictures on page 16]

“Bacuri,” with tree on left

[Credit Line]

Bacuri fruit: Geyson Magno/Ag. Lumiar

[Picture on page 17]


[Pictures on page 17]

Delicious “cupuaçu” ice cream, with the tree in the background

[Credit Line]

Background: Silvestre Silva/Reflexo