Exploring Belem, Brazil’s Culinary Gem at the Gateway of the Amazon

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culinary prominence in Belem

In the heart of Belém, a city situated 1,900 miles north of São Paulo and considered the gateway to the Amazon, Thiago Castanho, owner of Remanso do Peixe, reflects on the changing perception of the city’s cuisine. Previously undervalued, Belém’s culinary scene is now gaining recognition. Thiago, a key figure in this rise, had to leave his hometown to pursue his passion for cooking, training as a chef in São Paulo and Portugal in the early 2000s.

Thiago always dreamt of returning to Belém, envisioning the incredible potential of combining Amazonian ingredients with dishes from other regions. His first restaurant, Remanso do Bosque, gained significant acclaim, spending four years on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list before closing during the pandemic. Thiago proudly mentions that it was the only restaurant outside the Rio-São Paulo axis to receive such recognition.

Paulo Martins, a native of Belém, is another chef who played a crucial role in putting Amazonian cuisine on the map. Through his restaurants and food festivals, Paulo encouraged Brazilians to explore Belém and its unique flavors. Although he passed away in 2010, his daughter Joanna carries on his legacy with Manioca, a company offering a range of Amazonian products, including those made with cassava, locally known as yuca or manioc. Manioca’s success has popularized Amazonian ingredients across Brazil, with even London’s two-Michelin-star Da Terra featuring tucupí, a sauce made from fermented cassava, on its menu.

Belem’s culinary identity revolves around the abundance of unique Amazonian ingredients. As a city nestled near the Guajará Bay, approximately 60 miles from the confluence of the Amazon River system and the Atlantic Ocean, fish takes center stage in many dishes. Filhote (goliath catfish) offers a meaty and tender experience akin to monkfish, while dourada (bream) and pescada amarela (yellow hake) grace menus throughout the city. At Thiago’s restaurant, one can savor caldeirada, one of Belém’s renowned dishes. This flavorful stew combines filhote with onion, tomato, peppers, boiled eggs, and two essential pre-European ingredients: jambú, a numbing leaf, and tucupí, a sauce made from fermented cassava juice. The resulting flavor is truly revelatory.

Belém, often overlooked or underestimated by Brazilians in the past, is now gaining recognition as Brazil’s finest food city. With its strong Indigenous identity, it stands apart from the well-known mega-cities of the south. The moment one arrives in Belém after a three-and-a-half-hour flight from São Paulo, the intense and humid Amazonian heat is instantly felt. Situated just one degree south of the equator, near the world’s largest rainforest, Belém maintains a perpetually hot and humid climate. Locals humorously describe the city as having two seasons: one with constant rainfall and the other with rain every day.

Ver-o-Peso market, located between a fort and the old docks, serves as a vibrant testament to Belém’s diverse culinary culture. Dating back to at least 1625, this open-air market offers a bustling atmosphere where traders enthusiastically engage in haggling over a wide range of goods, including vegetables, Amazonian fish, herbal remedies, juices, Brazil nuts, street food, live animals, and trinkets. In this lively setting, one encounters Dona Carmelita, a vendor of native fruits that are increasingly rare in the rapidly globalizing city. From buçu, resembling a miniature coconut filled with refreshing yet bitter water, to bacupari, a sour fruit with hints of lemon and lime, and tucumã, reminiscent of honey, these fruits showcase the region’s rich biodiversity.

Belém’s cuisine is a fusion of cultures that have thrived in the surrounding state of Pará for centuries. Indigenous, Portuguese, African, Japanese, Sephardic Jewish, Arab, and even exiled American Confederate influences can be found in the city’s street food. Exploring the old town, characterized by colonial architecture in gradual decay and bearing a striking resemblance to Havana, I meet Marcos Medici, a renowned food influencer. Together, we venture to Cidade Nova, where we discover the true essence of Belenense cuisine. Marina Chaves, who learned to cook while working for a local family, has been running Tacacá da Marina, a food cart specializing in the nourishing soup tacacá, for 19 years. This dish, influenced by Indigenous, African, and Portuguese flavors, features tucupí, gummy tapioca starch, jambú, and dried prawns. Tacacá is renowned for its hangover-curing properties, and it truly impresses with its warming, hearty, and addictive qualities.

Marina proudly explains the uniqueness of Belém’s cuisine, distinct from other Brazilian states, highlighting dishes like caruru and vatapá. African in origin with local twists, caruru is a paste made from okra, shrimps, nuts, and palm oil, while vatapá is a puree of prawns, peppers, and onions. I also indulge in an unha, a delightful croquette filled with crab, tomato, onion, and coriander, with a charming crab claw poking out.

The apex of Pará’s cuisine, according to Medici, is Marina’s maniçoba. This dish, consumed in abundance during the religious Círio de Nazaré festival and available throughout the year, takes seven days to prepare. The leaves of the cassava plant used for tucupí are transformed into a green-black, earthy pulp and combined with jambú leaves. This mixture is then blended with pork cuts commonly found in feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, allowing the leaves to soak up the rich meat flavors. Although its appearance may not be striking, maniçoba is undoubtedly one of the most memorable culinary experiences.

Belém also encompasses jungle-covered islands, with Combú being the most accessible and popular among tourists. A quick 10-minute boat ride from the city brings visitors to Combú, where they can explore the riverine community with its stilted houses. Among the attractions is Filha do Combú, a remarkable chocolate factory that uses locally grown cocoa. The complex flavor of the chocolate is influenced by the unique growing conditions created by seasonal flooding, resulting in a rare absence of bitter notes.

Belém’s intense appreciation for its native cuisine took time to develop. In 2015, the city was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy alongside Macao and Parma. This recognition helped people realize the value of their culture. Today, Brazilians are proud of their Amazonian heritage, embracing the unique blend of Indigenous, European, and African influences that define their national cuisine. Belém serves as the starting point for many Brazilian chefs who now look inward, finding inspiration in what makes their country special.

Additional Places to Eat in Belém:

  1. Amazonia Na Cuia: This casual restaurant takes its name from the gourd bowls traditionally used to serve local dishes like tacacá. Indulge in açaí served with fried, salted pirarucu (an Amazon river fish), dried prawns, and charque (sun-dried beef jerky). Wash it down with Garoto, a soft drink made from guaraná fruit.

  2. Casa Do Saulo: Located in a colonial-era mansion with stunning views of Guarajá Bay, this restaurant, led by chef Saulo Jennings, offers modern interpretations of traditional Pará cuisine. Don’t miss the croquettes of piracuí (shredded, dried, salted fish) and the fried fish with bacon, açaí jam, and smoked pirarucu mayonnaise.

  3. Caranguejo Do Gatinho: For an authentic local experience, head to this restaurant that specializes in small crabs found where the river meets the sea, just north of Belém. Enjoy the rich and sweet crab meat served with marie rose sauce, vinaigrette, and farinha (cassava flour), accompanied by local Tijuca beer.

  4. Canto Dos Pássaros: Venture to Combú Island’s less-touristed central waterway, a 15-minute boat ride from the northern shores, to find this family-run restaurant nestled in the jungle. Try the fried dourada served with brown beans cooked with charque, farinha, and tucupí-chilli sauce. Afterward, unwind in a hammock while listening to the sounds of monkeys.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine, click here (available in select countries only).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about culinary prominence in Belem

Q: What makes Belém a rising culinary destination in Brazil?

A: Belém is gaining recognition as a culinary destination due to its unique Amazonian ingredients, indigenous cuisine, and the efforts of local chefs and food influencers to promote and celebrate the city’s gastronomy. The fusion of indigenous, European, and African influences creates a distinct culinary identity that sets Belém apart from other Brazilian states.

Q: What are some must-try dishes in Belém?

A: Belém offers a range of must-try dishes that highlight the city’s culinary richness. Some notable dishes include caldeirada, a stew featuring Amazonian fish, jambú leaves, and tucupí sauce; tacacá, a nourishing soup with tucupí, tapioca starch, jambú, and dried prawns; caruru, a paste made from okra, shrimps, nuts, and palm oil; vatapá, a prawn, pepper, and onion puree; and maniçoba, a dish prepared with cassava leaves, pork cuts, and jambú.

Q: What is Ver-o-Peso market and why is it significant?

A: Ver-o-Peso market is a historic and vibrant open-air market located in Belém. It has been operating since at least 1625 and is known as Latin America’s largest open-air market. The market offers a wide variety of products, including vegetables, Amazonian fish, herbal remedies, juices, Brazil nuts, street food, live animals, and trinkets. It serves as a cultural hub where locals and visitors can experience the diverse flavors, ingredients, and traditions of Belém’s culinary culture.

Q: How is Belém’s cuisine influenced by its multicultural history?

A: Belém’s cuisine is heavily influenced by its multicultural history, which encompasses Indigenous, Portuguese, African, Japanese, Sephardic Jewish, Arab, and even exiled American Confederate cultures. This rich blend of influences can be seen in the diverse range of dishes found in the city, incorporating flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques from these different cultures. The result is a vibrant and unique culinary scene that showcases the diversity and heritage of Belém.

Q: Are there any unique fruits or ingredients from the Amazon region that can be found in Belém?

A: Yes, Belém is known for its abundance of unique Amazonian fruits and ingredients. Some notable examples include buçu, a fruit resembling a mini coconut with a refreshing yet bitter water inside; bacupari, a sour fruit with hints of lemon and lime; and tucumã, a fruit with a taste reminiscent of honey. These fruits, along with other Amazonian ingredients, contribute to the distinctive flavors and experiences found in Belém’s cuisine.

Q: What are some recommended restaurants to visit in Belém?

A: Belém offers a range of recommended restaurants to explore its culinary delights. Some notable options include Amazonia Na Cuia, known for serving local staples like tacacá; Casa Do Saulo, offering modern takes on traditional Pará cuisine; Caranguejo Do Gatinho, a place to experience local delicacies like small crabs; and Canto Dos Pássaros, a family-run restaurant in the jungle serving dishes like fried dourada with brown beans and tucupí-chilli sauce. These restaurants provide a taste of Belém’s diverse and flavorful cuisine.

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