In 2005, I went to Brazil to meet my brother (who was there on business). I knew he wouldn’t be at the hotel when I arrived, but hadn’t counted on him not leaving me a key at the front desk. Hot, hungry and jetlagged, I walked the streets of the northern city of Salvador looking for something to eat. On a quiet side street I stumbled on a small restaurant. The walls were painted white and behind the counter there were a couple menu items written in vinyl letter stickers. Not knowing a word of Portuguese, I pointed to something on the wall and plopped down 20 reais which I hoped covered my tab. I had no idea what I’d ordered, but figured a big plate of protein and starch was heading my way.
To my surprise, the counterwoman brought me a bowl filled with a mysterious purple substance. It was the texture of a very thick smoothie, coated in a layer of granola, fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey. The flavor was brand new to me and absolutely delicious, similar to blueberry but much earthier. I housed the bowl and knew I’d stumbled onto something amazing. As I got up to leave, I pointed to the dish and motioned to the counterwoman to explain what I’d just experienced. “Ah-sigh-ee,” she said to the gringo.
When I’m jonesing for an açaí fix, I generally head to Bom Café in Cambridge’s Inman Square. Açaí bowls (açaí na tigela) vary in composition and can include any combination of fruits and sweeteners. Here, owner, Antonio Gomes, keeps things very simple, blending the frozen açaí pulp with blueberries (for extra antioxidants) and bananas (the potassium is good for his high blood pressure). A touch of guarana provides a caffeine boost, “for a little lift,” Gomes says. “But not so much that it will make you crazy.”
Gomes is a fun guy to talk to. Brazilian born, he’s lived in the States for 32 years and speaks quickly with a pleasing, rhythmic lilt. When I tell him I’m a stand-up comic he responds, “I’m a comedian too. But I sit down.” Of açaí, he says, “People like it because it’s very healthy and tasty too. The flavor is earthy. It’s a nice natural kind of thing.”
He’s also a bit of a purist when it comes to the açaí bowl. “Some people use whey [protein] and put in this and that, condensed milk, peanuts and blah blah blah. There’s no need for that stuff. I think it’s enough just the way it is.”
Açaí is actually a type of palm tree that grows along the Amazon river. It produces purple berries in bunches called, obviously, açaí berries. High protein, carbohydrate and fat content made the açaí berry a staple of the Amazonian diet. More recently, açaí juices and smoothies caught on in Brazil as a post-workout supplement.
“For Brazilians, we drink juices as vitamins,” Gomes says. “Açaí came in after this new movement of pumping iron, growing muscles and so on. It was very in in the south of Brazil. About 15 years ago or so, açaí was just known up north in the Amazon. They use it like black beans, like everywhere else in Latin culture, with fish and rice. They do everything with açaí.”
Back in 2005, my brother and I considered importing the berry stateside until we realized Sambazon had already been doing so since 2001. (Their commitment to sustainable harvesting is a solid feel-good story.) Around 2008, Dr. Oz went on Oprah to gush about the berry’s apparent health benefits, sparking a domestic açaí craze. Gaining the “superfood” designation, bogus health claims were associated with the fruit. Its antioxidants could prevent cancer while helping you lose weight, age slower, and increase virility. None of these claims were supported by clinical trials, but that didn’t stop the market for açaí supplements, creams, and mass market beverages to emerge.
All this nonsense did a disservice to what is a very healthy snack. We’re all adults here so let’s give flavonoid-mania a rest and just enjoy açaí for what it is — the perfect warm weather treat. (Sorry, you’ll still get wrinkles no matter how much you eat.)
With so many Brazilians living in the Boston area, you don’t need to go far to find an excellent açaí bowl. But if you’d rather go to Brazil, please let the nice counterwoman in Salvador know that I owe her one.
For first class açaí bowls (and cheese bread, too) check out:
Bom Café -1093 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-864-0395, facebook.com/bomcafema
Broadway Café – 508 Broadway, Everett, 617-381-1919