Belem entrances you. Far in the north of Brazil, at the mouth of the Amazon river, is the state of Para. Belem, it’s capitol, was a strong hold for the Portuguese that rapidly grew during the rubber boom and has been a trading crossroads for centuries.
Though the city has nearly 2 million people, this dense urban center has the Amazon jungle as its backdoor, always subtlety threatening to swallow the city without second thought.
The people of Belem, are of a diverse background with roots from Portuguese settlers, African slaves (several, Quilombos, escaped African slave communities, thrived in the Para state), Japanese immigrants from World War Two, Amazonian indigenous communities and Indonesians. This potpourri of cultures and traditions created the base for an exciting and exquisite gastronomical scene that has only recently been discovered (and globally praised) on an international level.
In the dense humidity of the morning’s fourth hour, madness is brewing on the banks of Bahia do Guajará. Boats of all sizes come pull up to Belem’s most famous market: Ver-o-peso. Literally “check the weight” market, the name comes from the colonial era when it was necessary to measure the weight of all produce for tax purposes. Here, in the dark morning hours is the market’s busiest time. Fishermen shout as they lug what appear to be enormous prehistoric monsters off their humble wooden crafts to the ice-covered tables awaiting the goods. Massive fish such as tambaqui, dorado and the king of all, pirarucu, with scales the size of a baby’s fist, line the market stalls. Meanwhile, large wicker baskets are being unveiled filled with the mystical super fruit: açaí. Actually a berry, açaí is one of the regions staple foods. Traditionally eaten in Para with fish and farinha (a cassava-based flour used as an essential condiment with almost every dish), açaí is a deep violet color with an earthy flavor.
As the sun rises, we arrive at the market. The dense air is laced with the notes of earth, citrus, bromelias, spices and fish. We weave our way through the tented stalls. The fishermen, who arrived in the wee hours of the morning, are now perched on short plastic stools at a number of simple food stalls eating fried fish with heaping sides of açaí. We pass what seems like endless rows of alien fruits and vegetables trying everything from the custardy cupuacu, to chirimoya, Brazil Nuts and the more exotic local green, jambu. Jambu, added to a wide variety of local dishes, almost instantly leaves the consumers mouth tingling and numb.
We work our way through the meat stalls and the fish market, the pastel-colored colonial buildings surrounding the market, becoming increasingly more vibrant as the sun climbs higher. We finally find ourselves at the herb stalls. Here numerous short older women with bright dresses and sly smiles wave petit glass bottles filled with tinctures and potions in our faces promising to be able to deliver us fortune, love, beauty and more, all for a low price, of course!
Keep following our blog to hear more about Belem and the adventures to come on the surrounding islands!
Your friendly Brazil expert,