Friday, June 3, 2011

FRUITS OF BRAZIL - Tucumã do Pará

When most North Americans or Europeans think of palm trees, their first thought is not of a fruit tree - it's likely rather to be a photogenic symbol of either the tropics (coconut palms) or the desert (date palms). Yet both these varieties, coconut and date palms alike, are important food sources in their native habitats and elsewhere in the hotter climate zones of the world.

All varieties of palm produce some sort of fruit as a mechanism for reproduction, and in addition to coconuts and dates, there are many, many more species of fruits consumed in Brazil and other tropical countries that are the product of some type of palm. In Brazil alone, there is dendê oil, without which there would be no Bahian cuisine, there is açaí, there is pupunha, and there is buriti, just to name a few. All come from some variety of palm or another.

One particular fruit-bearing palm, called tucumã, bears a fruit that is widely consumed in the state of Pará, at the mouth of the Amazon river. In fact, the fruit is so closely associated with that state that it is called tucumã do Pará. The native range of this palm is from Trinidad to the Amazon, and it grows all the way up the Amazon basin, to the borders of Brazil, Peru and Colombia, but it's in Pará that it's most highly valued as a food source. The  palm is a particularly nasty-looking tree, with a trunk protected by thousands of large thorns. It's a wonder anyone ever braved those thorns to first sample the fruit.

Like many palm fruits, the tucumã is a source of vegetable oil. And like some other palm fruits, specifically dendê, that oil has high levels of beta-carotene and is consequently a bright orange-yellow in color. The skin of the fruit is also a woody-orange, and can be peeled away easily with the hands or a knife, although the brilliant orange of the flesh can stain the skin. The flesh is fibrous, and can be eaten fresh from the tree. Most tucumã, however, is pulped and strained to make what is called tucumã wine - actually a juice - which is drunk as a refreshment or used as a basis for sauces sweet and savory. Fresh peeled tucumã are sliced and eaten in a French roll in a popular local sandwich. The large central seed is also a source of oil, which has potential to be a significant source of biodiesel.

The enormous river island at the mouth of the Amazon, Marajó, has large native stands of tucumã and therefore a commercial tucumã-harvesting industry. In the next post, Flavors of Brazil is feature a recipe from Marajó for a traditional regional variation on Brazil's national dish, feijoada.

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