For centuries, this cuisine was unknown to international gastronomy, practiced only by locals and mysterious even to other Brazilians. It was true that during the Círio de Nazaré, the city’s great celebration in honor of Our Lady of Nazareth, practically every household in Belém still served regional dishes like maniçoba and pato no tucupi. And açaí, a berrylike jungle fruit whipped into a nourishing purple purée, was still consumed in huge amounts. But other than that and tacacá, a hot soup of tucupi with dried prawns, tapioca gum, and jambu leaves, which was still sold at street stalls by local women in frilly white smocks, Pará cooking had pretty much slipped off the Brazilian public’s radar.
The restaurant that Anna Maria and Paulo Martins opened in 1972 would begin to change all that. Dona Anna had always been a skilled and dedicated home cook, as had her mother and grandmother before her. She and her husband, Paulo’s father, loved to eat out in the few good restaurants the city knew in the 1960s, but she could never understand why there was no place that specialized in the rich and varied cooking of the region. As for her son, he may have been an architect by training, but what really fascinated him was food. “I grew up helping Dona Anna—alongside the pots and pans, that is, not meddling with them. I didn’t want just to be a builder; I needed to imagine new forms, to do things differently. When I resolved to leave the field of architecture once and for all and to devote myself to the restaurant, I felt the need to keep on creating.”
Not content to stick to his mother’s recipes, Martins began to investigate the wonderful world of ingredients like jambu, tucupi, manioc flour, castanha-do-Pará (we know it as the Brazil nut), river fish like the pirarucu, which grows up to ten feet long, and the constellation of jungle fruits with their fabulous aromas. In Martins’s hands, jambu, traditionally assigned a supporting role, took center stage in creations like jambu pesto and arroz de jambu—jambu rice, now virtually a regional dish in its own right. Tucupi was whipped into foams and soufflés, and fruits perfumed ice creams and sweetmeats and found their way into pungent sauces for meat and fish.
Martins spent the 1980s working away quietly, far from fashionable culinary circles. But after he’d made a handful of visits to Rio and São Paulo, to introduce people in the restaurant world to the ingredients Pará had to offer, a stream of chefs began making their way to his door. Claude Troisgros, whose restaurant in Rio was one of the first to use indigenous Brazilian ingredients in a contemporary context, became a regular visitor, as did Alex Atala, currently riding high with his São Paulo restaurant D.O.M., widely regarded as the most innovative in Brazil. Atala is a self-proclaimed Amazon addict who makes the trip north at least three times a year, carrying home a suitcase full of fish and fruit, tucupi and jambu, every time.
Those of us who don’t live in Brazil unfortunately aren’t likely to see any of these oddities soon. Though Adrià is reported to be experimenting with tucupi and tapioca, and Andoni Luis Aduriz, of Mugaritz, in San Sebastián, uses jambu buds as part of a radical mixed salad, few other chefs outside Brazil are experimenting with these exotic ingredients. And customs regulations and local bureaucracy will continue to complicate the trading of the unconventional merchandise.
The Mercado Ver-o-Peso, Belém’s main produce market, serves as a powerful reminder of just how much we’re missing. Founded by the Portuguese in 1688, it’s housed in a splendid building right beside the coffee-colored waters of the Rio Guajará tributary. In the fish section, where Martins tells me he once counted 97 different species, I gape like a tourist at the baskets of still-twitching river shrimp; the grotesque armored tamuata, which skulks in thick mud at the water’s edge; and the immense filhote (“little son”), a catfish relative with a fine-flavored flesh that Martins uses in the fish stew known as caldeirada.
At a fruit stall run by a tiny lady with a bright smile and sunbaked skin, I’m treated to an impromptu tasting that includes a kind of cape gooseberry that grows on river banks (camapu); a neon-pink thing with the shape of a fig and the crunchy white flesh of an unripe melon (jambo, no relation to jambu); and a hard-skinned, light brown ball with a sour yellowish pulp (uxi—“very popular with monkeys,” says Martins). Not all this stuff is easy on the palate: I can see why big-city chefs favor cupuaçu and bacuri, with their agreeable perfumes and luscious honeyed sweetness, for example, over the weirdly savory, almost cheeselike murici.
As we approach the vegetable section, Martins’s cellphone rings for probably the tenth time that morning. It is Dominique Oudin, chef at the Méridien hotel in Rio, with an urgent request for a box of regional products. If it’s put on the afternoon flight, Martins figures, it should be there in time for dinner.
He sighs, not unhappily. Over the years, he has become a kind of unofficial promoter of ingredients to the rest of Brazil. Rather than resenting the work involved, though, he sees all the new interest as confirmation that, after 25 years of devoting himself to the strange and wonderful culinary wonders available right outside his back door, his efforts are finally bearing fruit.