As you might expect from the richest freshwater ecosystem in the world, fish takes pride of place in Amazonian cooking, and you’ll come across dozens of species. There are many kinds of huge, almost boneless fish, including pirarucu, tambaqui and filhote, which come in dense slabs sometimes more like meat, and are delicious grilled over charcoal. Smaller, bonier fish, such as surubim, curimatã, jaraqui, acari and tucunaré, can be just as succulent, the latter similar to a large tasty mullet. Fish in the Amazon is commonly just barbecued or fried; its freshness and flavour need little help. It’s also served no escabeche (in a tomato sauce), a leite de coco (cooked in coconut milk) or stewed in tucupí.
The other staple food in Amazônia is manioc. Farinha, a manioc flour consumed throughout Brazil, is supplied at the table in granulated form – in texture akin to gravel – for mixing with the meat or fish juices with most meals, and is even added to coffee. Less bland and more filling, manioc is also eaten throughout Amazônia on its own or as a side dish, either boiled or fried (known as macaxeira in Manaus and western Amazônia or mandioca elsewhere). A more exciting form of manioc, tucupí, is produced from its fermented juices. This delicious sauce can be used to stew fish in or to make pato no tucupí (duck stewed in tucupí). Manioc juice is also used to make beiju (pancakes) and doce de tapioca, a tasty cinnamon-flavoured tapioca pudding. A gloopy, translucent manioc sauce also forms the basis of one of Amazônia’s most distinctive dishes, tacacá, a shrimp soup gulped from a gourd bowl and sold everywhere from chichi restaurants to street corners. Other typical regional dishes include maniçoba, pieces of meat and sausage stewed with manioc leaves, and vatapá, a North Brazil version of the Bahian shrimp dish.
Finally, no stay in the Amazon would be complete without sampling the remarkable variety of tropical fruits the region has to offer, which form the basis for a mouthwatering array of sucos and ice creams. Most have no English or even Portuguese translations. Palm fruits are among the most common; you are bound to come across açai, a deep purple pulp mixed with water and drunk straight, with added sugar, with tapioca or thickened with farinha and eaten. Other palm fruits include taperebá, which makes a delicious suco, bacuri and buriti. Also good, especially as sucos or ice cream, are acerola (originally it came over with the first Japanese settlers in the 1920s, although Amazonians swear it is regional), peroba, graviola, ata (also called fruta de conde) and, most exotic of all, cupuaçú, which looks like an elongated brown coconut and floods your palate with the tropical taste to end all tropical tastes.