Sunday, October 10, 2010

Another Food Mystery Solved - Maçunim

One of the things I find really enjoyable about doing Flavors of Brazil is discovering a new ingredient here in Brazil, and then "tracking it down" - that is, finding out exactly what it is botanically or zoologically, and what's it's name is in English. This is sometimes a more difficult task than one might think. There are various English-Portuguese dictionaries and glossaries, but often the word I'm looking for isn't listed, particularly if the Portuguese word is regional, as is often the case. So then it becomes an internet hunt, using search engines, tags on food sites and blogs, or linguistic search tools.

This weekend, at a simple waterfront restaurant just outside Fortaleza, I ate a seafood dish made from an ingredient that I wasn't familiar with, but which was highly recommended to me by friends. It was called maçunim (pronounced mah-soo-NEEM in Portuguese). The dish consisted of what were obviously bits of meat that had been extracted from an animal that was in the clam/mussel family, having the size, shape and texture of those little creatures. They were cooked in a sauce based on coconut milk, a typical technique from Northeastern Brazil. There were no shells present in the dish, which perhaps could have helped me track down the identity of the maçunim, so my curiosity, if not my appetite, went unsatisfied.

Back home, it took a short while to find out what maçunim is, but I've been able to solve the mystery. There was no Wikipedia listing for it, either in the English or Portuguese versions of that online encyclopedia. There were some recipes in Portuguese, which told me that the animal needed to be removed from the shell after cooking, and there were some photos. I knew through the photos that it was a bi-valve mollusk, as are clams, mussels and oysters. I know the Portuguese words for those three animals, and none of them are called maçunim . Finally, from searching articles on Google, I found an article from 2008 on the site BBC Brasil, an excellent news and information site in Portuguese from "Auntie Beeb."  In an article entitled "O Paraíso Foodie e o Maçunim" author Thomas Pappon wrote about a gastronomic trip he had taken to the Northeastern state of Alagoas, where he discovered a local delicacy called maçunim. Somehow he knew what they were, for in the article he said that this seafood was common England where it was known as "cockles." Bingo! There was the answer I'd been searching for - maçunim are the same little delicacies that Molly Malone sang about all those years ago in Dublin's Fair City. "Cockles and mussels, alive, alive, oh!"

Mark down one more victory for Foods of Brazil in it's eternal quest to solve the food mysteries of Brazil. And one more term for the Foods of Brazil's bi-lingual gastronomic glossary.

In the next post on this blog, I'll provide a recipe for maçunim with coconut milk. I have seen cockles available in fish markets in North America and Europe, and I'm sure the dish could also be made with almost any variety of clam.


  1. You solved part of the mystery. There are many many species of cockles. It is unlikely that they are the ones also found in England Cerastoderma edule, though they do go down to West Africa. They are supposed to be an eastern Atlantic species. However it may be nearly impossible to ID without the shell. And there are likely several cockles in that area of Brazil alone.

  2. Thanks for the invitation for further research! I've just done a small bit of google-digging, and it appears that, in fact, the name maçunim could be applied to the following species, depending on region - Trachycardium muricatum or Anomalocardia brasiliana. According to what I have read, the authorities agree that Cerastoderma edule does not inhabit the Brazilian litoral, as it's restricted to the eastern Atlantic.