Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Dangerous Fruit - Pequi

Brazil is home to a thousand varieties of fruits, many of which are familiar to North Americans, and others from non-Brazilian cultures. There are many other fruits which are practically unknown outside the boundaries of this enormous country. One particularly fascinating example of this is the pequi (the word is the same in English and Portuguese, and is pronounced "pay-KEY"). It is adored by many, and detested by probably an equal number who object to its strong flavor. It is quite "modest" in appearance, being neither large or small, and not particularly beautiful. And it can be extremely dangerous to eat - not because it is poisonous or toxic, but because it can seriously damage the unwary eater's tongue, gums and upper palate. It's one scary fruit!

The pequi is native to the central part of Brazil, and in particular is identified with the Brazilian region called The Central-West, with the state of  Goiás, and with a particular ecoregion called the cerrado. The Brazilian cerrado is a vast tropical savanna covering much of central Brazil south of the Amazon rainforest, and it has been recognized by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as the biologically richest savanna in the world. The identification of the pequi with the cerrado is so strong that a common nickname throughout Brazil for an inhabitant of the cerrado is "pequi." The pequi is a tree-fruit, and the pequi tree grows up to 30 feet high (10 meters). The fruit matures and is harvested during the dry season, usually July to September.

The pequi is used extensively in the cuisine of  Goiás, and of other states in the same region. It is always cooked, never raw, and interestingly is added primarily to savory dishes rather than to sweet ones. Two of the most popular dishes with pequi are Chicken with Pequi (frango com pequi in Portuguese) and Pequi Rice (arroz com pequi.) This is probably due to the unique flavor profile of the pequi which is a complex and strong-tasting mixture of sweet, fruity, and cheesy flavors. Those who do not like the flavor of pequi often complain of these cheesy flavors, describing them as "sweaty" or "barnyard-like." Those who love pequi often focus on the same flavors. It's definitely an "off" flavor, and like most such flavors is usually an aquired taste.

Whether the pequi is eaten as part of a dish like Chicken with Pequi, or simply on it's own, one must be very careful in approaching this "dangerous" fruit, as it can cause serious harm to the unwary or foolhardy. The fruit has an edible skin, with soft flesh inside surrounding a large, stony pit. The pit is surrounded by a number of sharp spines which, if eaten, lodge themselves in the soft flesh of the mouth - the tongue, the gums and the palate. Once lodged they are very difficult to remove, and are very painful. It's as if one ate a botanical variety of porcupine and got a mouthful of quills. The only safe way to eat a pequi is to take it whole in one's hands (never use a knife and fork), and using only the top front teeth, carefully scrape the outer layers of soft flesh into the mouth. Any other technique can result in serious damage. The photo below shows exactly how the spines are lodged in the flesh of a pequi.

For the adventuresome eater, the pequi is an unforgettable experience. Like any other food that has potential to cause harm, or any other that has a strong, possibly-objectionable taste, it should be sampled very carefully and lightly. You may find you've discovered a new gastronomic delight (it certainly won't be like anything else you've ever eaten), or you might find that you've only discovered a loathsome fruit, in a deadly package.


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  7. What is the name of the Brazilian liquor that is distilled from the pequi? It is clear, and the bottles have little branches in the bottoms covered with crystalized sugar.

    1. The closest thing I have seen to what you describe is pequi left to soak in and flavor aguardente, or sugar cane liquor.

  8. Rice is the seed of the grass species Oryza sativa (Asian rice) or less commonly Oryza glaberrima (African rice). For more info see rice export from pakistan

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