Sunday, October 17, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Buriti, Another Superfruit from the Amazon

Anyone who cares about environmental issues and who has read anything about the environmental threat to our planet that the appearance of Homo sapiens has engendered knows that one of most essential environments, and one of the most threatened, is the tropical rain forest. The largest of these, the Amazonian forest, is found mostly in Brazil though other South American countries share in it. This environment is vital to our survival as a species because of its ability to counteract some of the worst of the causes of climate change, but is also important as a stronghold of biological diversity.

In previous posts, Flavors of Brazil has talked about some of the food products of this regions, principally fruits such as açaí and guaraná which have important cosmetic and medicinal properties in addition to their culinary importance. Such fruits, which have valuable nutritional properties, are sometimes known as "superfruits" for the multitude of beneficial properties they possess. Outside Brazil, the two fruits mentioned above are the most well known and have become nutritional buzzwords in North America and Europe.

In the same rain forest where açaí and guaraná grow there is another species of palm tree, the Mauritia flexuosa, which provides a large variety of economically, culturally and nutritionally valuable products, but which is much less known outside Brazil. It's English name is moriche palm, but it Brazil it's called buriti. This beautiful palm tree grows in swampy and flooded areas in the rain forest, and it is the source of numerous useful products:

1. The fruit of the tree. Rich in vitamins A and C with high levels of calcium, iron and protein, buriti fruit is traditionally eaten fresh, but is also turned into sweets and juices, flavors popsicles and ice cream, cooked in desserts, and is an important source of animal nutrition.
2. Oil extracted from the fruit. This oil is rich in carotene, and is used in traditional medicine as a vermifuge, to encourage healing of wounds and burns, as a source of physical energy, to tan and soften leather, and as a cosmetic, providing color and aroma to a number of creams, shampoos, and soaps. There is also anecdotal evidence that it has sun-blocking properties.
3. Palmito (hearts of palm). The buriti palm can be harvested at a young age and the growth point eaten as hearts of palm.
4. Wood. The tall tree is a good source of high-quality lumber.
4. Fibers from the fronds. These are used to make ropes, thatched roofs, hammocks, mats, baskets, toys and other artisanal products.

The fruit, which is also called buriti, is the seed of this palm and in the swampy environment in which the tree grows has the valuable property of floating, thus allowing the tree to propagate. It resembles a scaly pine-cone, and when the scales are peeled away a bright-yellow flesh is revealed. This flesh surround a hard nut, the actual seed of the plant. Sweet and creamy, with a distinctive taste and aroma, it is this flesh which flavors such a wide spectrum of foods and drinks.

In Fortaleza, my Brazilian hometown, I've never seen fresh buriti at the markets. I only know the flavor through jams and preserves, and though my personal favorite, buriti ice cream. My local ice cream store, located on the city's seafront promenade, has many, many flavors of ice cream. It's always a difficult choice for me to make when deciding on which flavor to order, but more often than not, I go back to buriti. I should probably try something new and untested, but since buriti is  delicious, AND good for you, why not?

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