Seductive for its exotic colors and flavors, Paraense cuisine is gaining fame throughout Brazil. However, the best place to savor the region’s cuisine is in Belém—either at an atmospheric restaurant (many of which are located in tourist attractions) or at the one of the street barracas where local women sell local delicacies such as the famous tacacá.
For those who seek to challenge their palates, the Amazon provides an unforgettable feast. The region’s rivers and rain forests provide an endless supply of exotic ingredients, and nowhere else in Brazil will you encounter so much indigenous influence. Belém is the Amazon’s culinary capital, and the city’s signature dish, tacacá, is an intoxicating fusion of key ingredients that provides an excellent initiation to the region’s cuisine. To some, tacacá is a broth; to others it is a drink, or even a stew. Regardless, it mixes shrimp with tucupi, a thick yellow liquid extracted from the roots of the manioc plant, and jambu, a creeping plant whose leaves cause a pleasant tingling and numbness of your lips. Served piping hot in cuias (hollowed-out gourds), tacacá gets an extra kick from the addition of pimenta de cheiro, a yellow pepper whose aroma is pungent and piquant, and alfavaca, a wild Amazonian version of basil.
Tucupi (which is cooked for some 12 hours in order to remove poisonous components) shows up in other specialties, such as the iconic pato no tucupi, an aromatic duck stew, and maniçoba, the Paraense equivalent of feijoada in which different portions of pork and sausage are cooked together along with dark-green leaves from the manioc plant (which require a week’s cooking to remove their toxins). Such dishes are often accompanied by arroz de jambu (rice flavored with jambu leaves) and farinha d’água, manioc flour that, having been left to soak in the river, has a soft, fluffy consistency.
Among the many fish you’ll come across, two of the most prevalent are filhote and pirarucu. Filhote appears in myriad recipes, often as the main ingredient in peixada, a stew that includes potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, and cilantro. Known as the Amazonian bacalhau (cod), pirarucu is Brazil’s largest fish, measuring up to 2.5 meters (8 feet) and weighing up to 80 kilograms (176 pounds). It is usually dried and salted before being grilled on a hot tile or cooked in coconut milk, and then served with farinha and light, buttery feijão manteguinha, a type of bean from the region of Santarém.
For snacks, caranguejo (crab) is very popular. Whole crabs cooked with lemon and garlic are known as caranguejo toc-toc, due to the “toc toc” noise that comes from hammering their shells with tiny wooden mallets. Meanwhile, unhas de carangueio (crab claws), which are less work to eat, have extremely tender meat. Another mainstay is casquinha de caranguejo, in which shredded crab meat is sautéed with cilantro, alfavaca, and lime and served in its shell.
The region best lives up to its reputation as a paradise of earthly delights when it comes to its fruits. The names in themselves are seductive: cupuaçu, bacuri, muruci, uxi, taperabá, tucumã, bacaba, and pupunha. But wait until you smell and taste them, which you can do in forms that include juices, compotes, doces, jellies, cremes, puddings, liqueurs, and sorvetes. The most highly addictive are cupuaçu and bacuri, both of whose pearly flesh is an ambrosial mixture of sweetness and tanginess. But the most famous of all is açai, a dark purple and pungent fruit that is consumed in a variety of ways, including as juice, ice cream, or, more popularly, as an accompaniment to fish. Finally, if you’re a fan of large, oily, and irresistibly rich Brazil nuts, you’ll find them all over in Pará, where they’re known as castanhas-do-Pará, and are sold — plain, salted, or caramelized — by vendors on the streets of Belém.
Food in Belém
Cafés and Snacks
To savor the most typically Belenense of Pará’s many delicacies, you’ll have to head to a simple barraca across the street from the Colégio Nazaré (Av. Nazaré, Nazaré, tel. 91/9142- 0433, 3:30–8 p.m. daily). From this spot, for the last 37 years, Maria do Carmo has been serving up what many consider to be the most perfect tacacá in town. Maria do Carmo attributes the success of her fragrant broth to quality ingredients such as the giant shrimp imported from Maranhão and jambu purchased daily from the Ver-o-Peso market.
Another equally beloved snack is the tapiocas (crunchy crepes made from manioc flour) that Andreia Dias Gonçalves has been making since she was a young girl in Pará’s interior. Locals flock to her stand, Tapioquinha de Mosqueiro (Complexo São José Liberato, Cidade Velha, 7 a.m.–noon and 3:30–9:30 p.m. Tues.–Sun.) for their early-morning and late-afternoon tapioca fix. In terms of fillings, there are more than 60 sweet and savory possibilities; the most popular, however, is molhada, in which the tapioca, filled with freshly grated coconut, is dipped in coconut milk and then wrapped in a banana leaf.
Tucked away amid the old mansions of Cidade Velha, Portinha (Rua Dr. Malcher 463, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/3223-0922, 5–10 p.m. Fri.–Sun.) is easily identifiable by the locals who line up in front of this tiny lanchonete to feast on homemade pastries, all of which have an Amazonian twist. For example, instead of ground beef, the Lebanese esfihas are stuffed with duck, jambu, and tucupi. There are also turnovers filled with smoked sausage and pupunha, and rolls stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and Brazil nuts. If you want a meal, regional dishes such as maniçoba and tacacá are prepared daily.
Although Point do Açai (Estação das Docas, Blvd. Castilhos França, tel. 91/3212-2168, noon–10 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 9 a.m.–10 p.m. Fri.–Sun.) serves a sweet gringo version of the famous purple Amazonian power fruit with banana, granola, and guaraná, if you want to savor açai like the locals do, order it as an accompaniment to fish, shrimp, or chicken.
Perhaps the most famous ice cream parlor in the country, Cairu (Travessa 14 de Março 1570, Nazaré, tel. 91/3212-5595, noon–midnight Mon.–Thurs., noon–2 a.m. Fri.–Sun.) has been churning out its lip-smacking sorvetes for close to 50 years. Purists can indulge in Amazonian flavors made from local fruits such as bacuri, murici, sapoti, graviola, and açai, while novelty-seekers can try the “mestiços” (mixed breeds) such as carimbó (cupuaçu and Brazil nut) and maria isabel (bacuri, shortbread, and coconut). The ice creams are so delectable that five-star restaurants in Rio and São Paulo proudly feature them on their dessert menus. There are 11 locations around Belém, including one at the Estação das Docas.
The finest Italian food in town can be found at Dom Giuseppe (Av. Conselheiro Furtado 1420, Batista Campos, tel. 91/4008-0001, 6 p.m.–midnight Mon.–Sat., noon–3 p.m. and 6 p.m.–midnight Sun., R$20–30), a charming house with wooden floors and white and red accents. Although recipes are devoutly Italian, the tastes are sharply enhanced by the use of ingredients supplied by local producers. For instance, the smooth, creamy mozzarella comes from regional buffalo herds, while the semolina used in the polenta is from a local manioc farm. Even the chocolate, which is the mainstay of rich desserts such as the brownie topped with cream sorvete and cashews, comes from cocoa grown in the interior of Pará. The wine list is quite impressive.
Right next to the Basilíca de Nazaré, Estação Gourmet (Praça Justo Chermont, Nazaré, tel. 91/3252-1500, 11:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m. daily, R$15–25) offers inexpensive per-kilo food that doesn’t skimp on creativity. Aside from a dozen salads, hot dishes rely heavily on local ingredients, yielding offerings such as jambu risotto and shrimp in cupuaçu sauce.
Regional Paraense Cuisine
Paulo Martins, the proprietor of Lá em Casa (Blvd. Castilhos França, Estação das Docas, tel. 91/3212-5588, noon–midnight daily, R$20–30) is considered an ambassador of Paraense cuisine. Having learned everything he knows about local cooking from his mother, Martins travels throughout Brazil and around the world introducing foodies to the aromas and flavors of the Amazon. In Belém, he serves up classic recipes such as pato no tucupi and grilled pirarucu along with the new concoctions he is always creating in his kitchen laboratory. Recent inventions include shrimp with bacuri, black maniçoba pasta with Paraense haddock in a curry sauce, and diced tambaqui served with jambu rice and fried bananas. Desserts will blow your mind, especially the doce de cupuaçu gratiné with creamy buffalo cheese from the Ilha de Marajó. Lunch features a best-of buffet (R$34–36).
Strangely enough, restaurants specializing in Amazonian fish (as opposed to meat or seafood) are hard to come by in Belém. A delicious exception to this rule is Remanso de Peixe (Travessa Barão do Triunfo 2950, Casa 46, Marco, tel. 91/3228-2477, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 7–10 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun., R$25–35). Despite this restaurant’s off-the-beaten-path location—hidden away in a pleasant villa in the residential bairro of Marco—both locals and tourists have no problem seeking it out in order to savor dishes made from fresh fish purchased daily at the Mercado Ver-o-Peso. By far the most popular dish is the moqueca paraense, a bubbling stew of local filhote, crab legs, and shrimp cooked in a broth of tucupi, jambu, tomatoes, and herbs and served piping hot in a cast-iron pot. Its success is such that the owners patented the recipe. Leave room for desserts such as cappuccino pudding with preserved bacuri.
Taberna São Jorge (Travessa Joaquim Távora 438, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/8146-4546, 11 a.m.–4 p.m. and 7–11 p.m. Tues.–Sat., R$15–25) is a cozy corner restaurant (formerly a bar) that is known for its tomato-red walls plastered with images of São Jorge as well as its original dishes, most of which are based on the classic Brazilian duo of rice and beans. Start off with an order of bolinhos de feijão, crisp balls of manioc flour filled with black bean puree, and then satiate any further hunger pains with the “mexido garagem,” in which the rice and beans are added to sun-dried beef, eggs, and diced veggies. Cleanse your palate with some Marajó buffalo cheese and preserved cupuaçu.
Located within the Parque Mangal das Garças, Manjar da Garças (Mangal das Garças, Cidade Velha, tel. 91/3242-1056, noon–4 p.m. and 8 p.m.–midnight Tues.–Thurs., noon–4 p.m. and 8 p.m.–2 a.m. Fri.–Sat., noon–4 p.m. Sun., R$25–35) consists of a vast Swiss Family Robinson–style bungalow on stilts with a palm thatched roof and stunning views of the Rio Guamá. The jungly ambiance enhances the appreciation of sophisticated dishes that take advantage of local ingredients. Examples include crunchy almond-crusted filhote served with jambu risotto, and shrimp with leeks bathed in a sauce of apples and Brazil nuts. For dessert, the bacuri profiteroles swimming in melted chocolate are pretty sublime. Lunch features a buffet of hot and cold dishes, while the dinner menu is à la carte. Live music adds to the mood.