About a year and a half ago, while attending a culinary conference in Spain, I overheard chef Ferran Adrià saying that in his view the great undiscovered culinary planet was the Amazon. Adrià had heard about a chef in Brazil, he said, who was doing great things with some of the strangest ingredients on earth. A kind of “electric cress” that sent shock waves through your mouth. A huge fish with a meaty rib cage that you nibbled, as though it were pork spareribs. Fruits from the depths of the jungle that were so bizarre they might have been genetically manipulated by aliens.
My curiosity piqued, I began reading up on the region, eventually discovering that Brazil is home not just to one national cuisine but to numerous culinary styles, each with its own personality. I made plans to visit São Paulo, the Manhattan of Brazil, a melting-pot metropolis of 10 million where Japanese and Italian and Lebanese cuisines mingle with local food traditions to form a dazzling culinary kaleidoscope. It was there that I learned about the renaissance currently transforming the landscape of Brazilian restaurant food, with young chefs like Alex Atala and Bel Coelho leading the way.
If one of the poles of the new Brazilian cooking is São Paulo, Atala and Coelho told me, the other is Belém—the capital of the state of Pará and one of the two major cities of the Brazilian Amazon (the other is Manaus). It turns out that the main mover and shaker on the Belém food scene—as well as the main purveyor of Amazonian ingredients to the avant-garde chefs of Rio and São Paulo—is the same chef whose work Adrià had praised: Paulo Martins, of the restaurant Lá em Casa.
Less than 100 miles from the equator, Belém seems to stand guard at the gaping mouth of a river system that stretches 4,000 miles into the interior, its tentacles reaching into Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. And when it comes to cooking, there’s a lot to be said for living on the edge of one the world’s largest forest ecosystems. Consider that, in addition to containing a fifth of all the world’s fresh water, the Amazon is home to more than 1,500 species of freshwater fish. The region is believed to harbor more than 1,000 species of edible fruit, at least two dozen of which, wildly exotic though they may seem to non-Amazonians, are everyday fare at the fruit stalls and breakfast buffets of Belém.
So it was that I found myself launched into the tropical sauna of Belém’s broiling streets, heading for an encounter with the man who has done more than anyone to get Brazilians talking about the food culture of their northern provinces. Born into an important Belém family (his great-grandfather was governor of the state of Pará), Paulo Martins trained as an architect but left the profession in 1978 to dedicate himself to the restaurant he had opened with his mother, Anna Maria, in their home in the city’s Nazaré district. A big, bluff, genial man with a salt-and-pepper beard and gleaming black eyes, Martins sat me down at a table in the shade of the terrace at Lá em Casa (it means something like “back home”) and gave me a crash course in the flavors and dishes that make up his culinary universe.
The traditional gastronomy of Pará has three pillars, he explained: manioc root, or cassava; river fish; and jungle fruit. Its principal seasonings are cheiro verde, literally “green-smell,” a local variety of cilantro; chicória, a fleshy variant of chicory; and a small-leaved, highly pungent basil called alfavaca. (These are complemented by pimenta de cheiro, a small yellow chile used whole to give fragrance or crushed and macerated for a hot sauce.)
At lunchtime, Martins brought out a succession of dishes, each more striking than the last. We began with caruru paraense, a kind of dry fricassee of shrimp and okra sautéed with garlic, onion, black pepper, dendê oil, and manioc flour, then moved on to a salad of shredded river crab meat in its shell, refreshingly flavored with garlic, chopped onion, and those three herbs. After this came tambaqui—the fish with the succulent ribs—done on the grill, superbly meaty, and accompanied by a generous helping of sludgy maniçoba, an ancient dish of tribal origin for which manioc leaves are crushed and simmered for seven days and seven nights, and then topped with bacon, sausage, and other types of smoked pork.
Then came the main attraction: pato no tucupi—a signature dish not just of the restaurant, but of Pará cuisine as a whole. To make it, Martins simmers duck, the chicken of the Amazon, in tucupi with generous amounts of jambu—the “electric cress” Adrià had mentioned. I gingerly took a mouthful and chewed carefully. At first nothing happened, though the vegetable, in its misolike sauce, tasted fine and juicy. Then I began to feel a prickle on my lips, followed by a peculiar numbing sensation that flooded my mouth, making my salivary glands work overtime. I must have yelped with surprise, because the people at the next table looked over to see what was up. Martins laughed uproariously and then brought me a plate of Amazon fruit ice creams to soothe my tingling mouth.
“Cozinha paraense,” the cooking of Pará, Martins explained, is essentially a legacy of the indigenous tribes that originally inhabited the lower reaches of the Amazon before being pushed into the interior by the threat of disease and slavery. Despite the colonization of the region from the 16th to the 18th centuries by the Portuguese, the indigenous cuisine survived almost intact. Cozinha paraense is often referred to as the most authentically Brazilian of all the regional cozinhas, precisely because it bears so few traces of outside influence.