A guest post by my good friend Alan Kershaw and his foodie experience in Manaus, Brazil
Fish was what I wanted. Fish was what I got. It could hardly have been otherwise, in the heart of the Amazonas region with the world’s largest river (up to 25 miles wide) providing fish in even more abundance than my excellent fishmonger in London’s fashionable Stoke Newington. Enough for the schools of friendly pink dolphins who allowed us to swim with them, more than sufficient for the sparse local population, and plenty for us too.
Five days in Manaus – a bizarre baroque city in the middle of the vast forest, and now the buzzing hub of Brazil’s IT and other industries – gave ample opportunity to sample the distinctive local cuisine, focussed heavily on (you guessed it) fish.
In that short stay we experienced fruits of heartbreaking sweetness, the characteristic tapioca pancakes made on the spot with any filling you choose (try white cheese grilled with the exotic fruit tucumã), and something that I now recognise as – not to put too fine a point on it – a Great Dish of the World.
I’ll begin at the beginning. The Hotel Tropical – which incidentally I strongly recommend – produced a crunchily fresh salad, a real reviver after being catapulted from chilly São Paulo to a steamy climate where, if it gets as cold as 25 degrees, they go into long sleeves. There’s a way to lay out a salad and a way not to. This was the way.
Great start, followed by the ubiquitous fish Pirarucu (don’t look to me for translations: they probably don’t exist and, in any case, you’re unlikely to find them over here). Pirarucu, another local fish, can grow up to two metres long so a big one will feed an extended family.
They come as fillets cooked in a variety of ways – breadcrumbed alla milanese is a popular option – and with various sauces based on local vegetables and spices, mild compared with my expectations though ferocious bottled sauces and pickled peppers are provided at every meal, for the inquisitive and the courageous to add according to taste. Take care: I was a bit too courageous with a spoonful of these, mistaking them for beans, and went around with my mouth open for the rest of the day.
|Pirarucu alla milanese|
A local specialty is Pirarucu de Casaca, cooked as a stew with cassava flour, bananas, coconut milk, tomatoes, onions, chilis and green herbs. We picked it up at a street food stall (above, with a can of the Guaraná fizz that is yet to be overturned by Coke or Fanta). Filling, nutritious and, as I learned to say frequently in Amazonas, ‘muito gostoso’. The accompaniment was Vatapá, a sauce of bread, shrimp, coconut milk, peanuts and palm oil that is characteristic of the Bahia region (older readers: think Carmen Miranda). It’s surprisingly reminiscent of the kind of robust fish bisque you might get in a Paris bistro, underlining the surprisingly large number of Brazil/France connections you find in all parts of the country.
The Açai berry has been touted in the neurotic West as some kind of superfood – not sure I get that and, having seen the trees and the number of the tiny berries that are needed to produce even a small quantity of juice I doubt large scale production would be economic. But Brazil rates it high, its pulp forming a base for smoothies, sauces, ice creams and all sorts. It's bitter, earthy taste is not for everyone, and personally, I find a little goes a long way; but in an extravagant dessert designed for the legendary Brazilian sweet tooth, it offsets well the sugary sweetness of the cake, condensed milk, granola and other stuff that is likely to have been thrown in. Treat it with respect, though: its deep purple colour left charming but indelible stains on my best shorts.
Other fruits are, as I have said, spectacularly sweet. Only in Amazonas have I been able to eat the ‘indigestible’ core of a pineapple in the same way as the rest of the fruit – even elsewhere in Brazil you usually have to throw away that bit. Add in guava, papaya and passion fruit at least four times the size of the ones we see over here, and personally, I have little or no need for any other kind of dessert. Or breakfast, for that matter.
Main dishes are not all fish, of course. Brazilian taste extends to meat, beans, meat, rice and meat. Beans are usually presented as a side dish, pleasantly mushy. The rice is boiled with onions and maybe some spices – again, surprisingly mild considering the sauces available. For choice they will barbecue meat – beef, pork and chicken predominate - and it tends to come up a bit dry and too well cooked for my taste unless the meat is high quality, such as the gorgeous picanha steaks which, when perfect, run red on the plate.
|Picanha, farofa and vinaigrette|
As you see, the presentation will invariably include a dish of farofa – toasted manioc flour moistened with butter and flavoured with whatever they choose: bacon, eggs, garlic or parsley are not unusual. The idea is to sprinkle as much as you like of this on the meat. It adds crunchiness and some extra flavour but to the horror of Brazilian friends and family I can’t get the texture of sawdust out of my mind. Sorry.
The other pots in the picture are vinaigrette which is – well - vinaigrette; and a cup of juice from the Cupuaçu - local fruit – significant enough in the region to warrant its own festival which, conveniently comes early in the year so can be combined with Carnival: a typically labour-saving option. The juice – all this forest restaurant had on the drinks list (who needs anything else?) – is quite sour and needs sweetening but is mightily refreshing in the sticky forest climate.
Which brings me to the Great Dish of the World. Right in the centre of baroque Manaus, pretty well next door to the famous opera house (yes, opera house) Teatro Amazonas, is an unassuming restaurant called Tambaqui de Banda. You could easily miss it, but locals will tell you it’s the place to go. It looks nothing special, though it had a major refurb for the 2014 World Cup when in honour of the England team’s presence they took on some English-speaking staff and had the menu translated.
Get inside and the friendly welcome extends at once too cold local beers (Brahma, Bohemia). Plates of canapés appear by magic: soft cheese mini-pastel (like pasties, dry-fried); enormous breaded prawns to dip in Tucupi, a relatively mild pepper sauce popular enough for them to have to fill up the bottles three times a day; salad with another fishy dip. We feasted on the lot while we worked our way up and down the dog-eared (and obviously much-loved) menu.
Teasing ourselves before we got to the main item, we ordered a plate of six of these:
|Caboco enrolado: a pirarucu (fish) mousse rolled in slices of fried banana and topped with a swirl of cream cheese|
Don’t look much, do they? My photo is unlikely to do them justice. This is Caboco enrolado: a pirarucu (fish) mousse rolled in slices of fried banana and topped with a swirl of cream cheese. Utterly, utterly perfect and I would kill for the recipe. Six on the plate and there were five of us so it ended in a fight, but it was worth the hassle. Even then the best was yet to come.
And so the masterpiece. It’s their signature dish, and they call it (what else?) Tambaqui de Banda:
… during …
This may have been caught in the Amazon but for me, this is just fish from the Planet Fish. It comes in various sizes so it can suit groups of different sizes. This was quite a big one and, as you see, it’s perfect for the kind of communal dining that’s so normal in Brazil. They bake it so that the skin is crisp and slightly burnt – I hear that in other places it can be baked in banana leaves, producing a gentler finish.
It was big enough to produce five decent sized steaks of a firm, meaty fish plus several fleshy ribs that wouldn’t be out of place at a barbecue. Fascinatingly, the aroma was strongly reminiscent of smoked bacon though infinitely more subtle. To say that we fell on it would be an understatement. We dived into it, swam, came up for air, dived again. We fought over it, each discreetly securing more than their share at each helping. We rolled it round our mouths to get the last fragment of flavour out of every bite. We hymned it, words giving way to uncivilised squeaks of pleasure so that I was no longer required to stretch my Portuguese to find new adjectives.
It took some time because decent behaviour eventually gave way to one of the pleasures I regard as essential to the enjoyment of food: you can prepare it, cook it, present it, smell it, talk about it, serve it, taste it, talk about it again. But there’s one more thing: if it’s worth the trouble, you must play with it. Take a look at the third photo: you should see a bone that’s been picked up, gnawed, turned round and round, relieved of every morsel that might get you closer to the soul of the dish you have just eaten. Tambaqui de Banda is like that.
Manaus is quite a long way, wherever you start from. In five days we sampled a good range, and there is much more to tell. In summary, though, I’d say the region amply bears out Brazil’s deserved reputation for diversity, quality, user-friendliness and communality, the local cuisine – as it should, anywhere - sufficiently underlining all those attributes. Get there if you can. I will certainly go back for more.
*- text and all photographs were taken by Alan on his trip to Brazil in August.