“In São Paulo, people had no idea about our food — they didn’t value it,” says Thiago Castanho. “They joked that we rode alligators. But things are changing.” The owner of Remanso do Peixe, a restaurant on a quiet street in the heart of Belém — 1,900 miles north of São Paulo — Thiago has become a key figure in the Amazonian city’s rise to culinary prominence. With no cookery schools in Belém, he first had to leave his home town, moving to São Paulo and Portugal in the early 2000s to train as a chef.
Thiago always hoped to return. “Every time I saw a dish from elsewhere, I thought, man, this would be incredible with Amazonian ingredients.” His first restaurant in Belém, Remanso do Bosque, spent four years on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list before closing during the pandemic. “That was incredible, because it was the only restaurant outside the Rio-São Paulo axis to get the nod,” he says.
In many ways, Thiago has taken up the baton from Belém native Paulo Martins, a chef many consider responsible for putting Amazonian food on the culinary map. Via his restaurants and food festivals, Paulo, who passed away in 2010, encouraged Brazilians to visit the city and get to know it better.
His daughter, Joanna, continues his legacy with Manioca, a company with a line of Amazonian products — including some made with cassava, the Amazon root vegetable also known as yuca or manioc, from which the outfit derives its name. When Manioca launched back in 2014, products from the Amazon were rarely seen outside the region — they’re now found across the country. Tucupí, a sauce of fermented cassava, has become something of an Amazon ambassador food, even appearing on the menu at London’s two-Michelin-star Da Terra.
Unique Amazonian ingredients abound. But unsurprisingly for a city that skirts the Guajará Bay, around 60 miles inland from where the mighty Amazon River system meets the Atlantic, fish is a staple ingredient. Filhote (goliath catfish) is meaty yet tender, reminiscent of monkfish, while dourada (bream) and pescada amarela (yellow hake) are found on restaurant menus city wide. At Thiago’s restaurant, I’m presented with one of Belém’s most renowned dishes, caldeirada. The stew contains filhote, onion, tomato, peppers and boiled eggs, as well as two of the region’s most important pre-European ingredients: jambú, a mouth-numbing leaf, and tucupí (a sauce made from fermented cassava juice). The result is revelatory.
While it’s long been underappreciated or ignored by Brazilians, Belém is increasingly being spoken of as Brazil’s best food city — one with a strong Indigenous identity, completely different from the more famous megacities in the south. It certainly feels distinct. When I touched down in Belém after a three-and-a-half-hour flight from São Paulo, I was immediately struck by the heat. Not the dry, breezy heat of São Paulo, but an intense, dense, humid heat. Amazon heat. Just one degree south of the equator, close to where the world’s largest rainforest fringes the Atlantic, Belém is always hot and humid. Locals joke that there are two seasons: one when it rains all day, the other when it rains every day.
Settled in 1616 by the Portuguese — on the site of an existing Indigenous settlement — Belém is a gateway to the Amazon; the region’s biggest city, Manaus lies around 800 miles upriver. For much of its history, Belém was fabulously rich, a port where goods arrived from the jungle to be shipped to Europe. During its rubber-exporting heyday, in the late 19th century, it’s said wealthy residents sent their clothes to Parisian launderettes. Then the British introduced rubber to Southeast Asia, and Belém experienced a steady decline.
For centuries, the surrounding state of Pará, almost twice the size of Texas, has hosted a mishmash of cultures. From Indigenous to Portuguese, enslaved Africans to Japanese, Sephardic Jews, Arabs and even exiled American Confederates, this multi-ethnic presence can be seen in the food — nowhere more so than on the streets of Belém. In the old town, which in places bears a notable resemblance to Havana, with striking colonial architecture in slow decay, I meet Marcos Medici, a food influencer known by his adopted mononym, Medici. We head for what is said to be Latin America’s largest open-air market, Ver-o-Peso, which in English means ‘check the weight’. Set between a fort, built to fend off French, Dutch and British invasions, and the old docks, the market has been present at this waterfront site since at least 1625.
It’s loud; traders haggle over vegetables, huge Amazonian fish, herbal remedies, juices, Brazil nuts (known as ‘Pará nuts’ in Brazil, in a nod to their regional origins), street food, live animals, trinkets and much more. Huge black vultures circle in search of scraps.
We’ve come to see Dona Carmelita, who sells all sorts of native fruits, many of which, she tells me, are increasingly hard to find in a rapidly globalising city. There’s buçu, which resembles a mini coconut and is filled with a bitter yet refreshing water. Bacupari, meanwhile, has a sour, gummy pulp whose taste has hints of lemon and lime. Tucumã reminds me of honey. Later, over a creamy cocoa fruit juice, Medici tells me Dona Carmelita is “part of our city’s heritage”, keeping traditions alive.
“Belém has a commercial centre and various areas and cities surrounding it,” says Medici. “People leave home in the morning and return late at night, so they’ll have at least a snack and a meal outside home, normally on the road, because it’s cheaper.” And the choice is extensive. You’ll find everything from Japanese favourites like yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) and tempura to hot dogs made of minced meat and smash burgers [made with flattened patties] “We’ve been doing them since the 1950s,” says Medici, laughing.
In the Cidade Nova area, 11 miles north east of the centre, we seek out food you rarely find elsewhere in Brazil — dishes that demonstrate the Belenense identity. Just off Avenida Dom Vicente Zico, at the corner of Travessa We 42, I find Marina Chaves. Having learnt to cook while working for a local family, she set up a food cart on this spot called Tacacá da Marina which she’s run for 19 years. Tacacá is a nourishing soup with Indigenous, African and Portuguese influences, made with tucupí cooked with a gummy tapioca starch, jambú and dried prawns. The slightly sour, nourishing dish is considered a top hangover cure, and I can see why: it’s warming, hearty, moreish.
“Our cuisine is very interesting — completely different from that of other states in Brazil,” Marina tells me, as she urges me to try caruru and vatapá. Both African in origin with native touches, the former is a paste consisting of okra, shrimps, nuts and palm oil; the latter a prawn, pepper and onion puree. I also try an unha, a croquette made with crab, tomato, onion and coriander, with a claw charmingly poking out.
Marina’s maniçoba, a dish Medici describes as the “apex of Pará’s cuisine”, is the highlight. Eaten in startling quantities during the religious Círio de Nazaré festival in October, but found on the street year-round, it’s a dish of multiple influences and it takes seven days to prepare. The leaves of the cassava used for tucupi are rendered into a green-black, earthy pulp, then mixed with jambú leaves and combined with the pork cuts commonly found in feijoada, Brazil’s national dish. The leaves soak in the fatty meat. It’s not pretty, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
Belém incorporates several jungle-covered islands. The most accessible, Combú, is a 10-minute boat ride from town and a must-visit. Tourists flock to visit the riverine community, with its stilted houses, and it’s where you’ll find Filha do Combú, a remarkable little chocolate factory that uses cocoa grown on the island. “It’s very complex, with red fruit notes,” says manager Mario Carvalho. He points out that seasonal flooding creates the type of growing conditions responsible for the chocolate’s unique flavour: bitter notes are rare, even in the darker chocolate varieties.
Spend time in Belém and you’ll soon discover there’s an intense love for native cuisine, but it wasn’t always the case. In 2015, Belém was named a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, alongside the likes of Macao and Parma. “That made people realise our culture should be valued,” Thiago explains. “In the past, when people travelled, they’d put on another accent. Today they’re proud, they beat their chest, they love the Amazon. They love Pará and say Paraense food is the best in the world.”
Belatedly, the rest of Brazil is starting to cotton on. Where once Brazilian chefs looked to Europe for culinary inspiration, they’re now looking closer to home, to what makes the country special, to showcase a uniquely Brazilian cuisine blending Indigenous, European and African influences. And for many, that begins in Belém.
Food more places to eat in Belem
1. Amazonia Na Cuia
Meaning ‘Amazon in a bowl’, this restaurant’s name is a nod to the gourd bowls traditionally used to serve local staples, such as tacacá (a prawn soup), which this casual spot specialises in. Go for the açaí served with fried, salted pirarucu (an Amazon river fish), dried prawns and charque (sun-dried beef jerky). Wash down with Garoto, a soft drink made from guaraná fruit. From R$61.50 (£10).
2. Casa Do Saulo
Saulo Jennings is one of Belém’s top chefs, specialising in modern takes on traditional Pará cuisine. His restaurant, set in a colonial-era mansion, has stunning views across Guarajá Bay. Croquettes of piracuí (shredded, dried, salted fish) are superb, as is the fried fish with bacon, açaí jam and mayonnaise made with smoked pirarucu. From R$184.50 (£30).
3. Caranguejo Do Gatinho
For a true local’s experience, head to this restaurant, which mainly serves the small crabs found where the river meets the sea, just north of Belém. Rich and sweet, they’re served with marie rose sauce, vinaigrette and farinha (cassava flour). Wash down with local Tijuca beer. From R$61.50 (£10).
4. Canto Dos Pássaros
The northern shores of Combú Island get most of the tourists from Belém, but take a 15-minute boat ride inland along the island’s central waterway and you’ll find Canto dos Pássaros, a family-run restaurant in the jungle. Fried dourada served with brown beans cooked with charque, farinha and tucupí-chilli sauce is excellent. Then enjoy a siesta in a hammock soundtracked by the howls of monkeys. From R$61.50 (£10).
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