Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt. 6) - Tacacá

At the end of the afternoon in Belém, around four or five, just after the daily torrential downpour ends, a collective hunger pervades local residents. It's the same hour as tea in London, churros and hot chocolate in Madrid, or coffee and Viennese pastries in Vienna, but nobody in Belém indulges in any of those treats. Here the end of the afternoon means only one thing. It's time to "take tacacá." Although tacacá is a soup, in the local dialect one doesn't drink or eat it, one takes it - tomar tacacá.

One might think that the last thing anyone would want in the muggy heat of an Amazonian afternoon is a steaming hot bowl of soup. But if one thinks that way, one's not from Belém. For Belenenses (inhabitants of Belém), a bowl of tacacá cures all ills and soothes the soul like nothing else. It also tides one over until dinner quite nicely.

Taking tacacá has long been a ritual all throughout the Amazonian basin, though anthropologists tell us it originated among the Amerindian tribes in the region nearest to Belém. How, when and why it is served are controlled by age-long custom. Among the unwritten rules and regulations: tacacá is street food, purchased and eaten on the street. Tacacá vendors, usually women and known as tacacazeiras, sell their product from carts and stalls situated on the street, on the corner or in a park, just like Salvador's famous baianas and their acarajé. Tacacá must be served in a gourd, never in a plastic or ceramic bowl. The gourd sometimes nestles in a small woven basket to make it easier to pick up when filled with hot tacacá and traditionally decorated gourds are often lovely objets d'arts. Tacacá must be sipped directly from the gourd, not brought to the mouth via a spoon, although a small toothpick is often provided to help pick out the solid ingredients. Finally, and seemingly perversely, tacacá has to be very, very hot.

tacacá gourd
To sit on a small plastic stool on a busy street in Belém at 5 pm, watching the tacacazeira dish out portion after portion of tacacá while sipping from one's own gourd is to participate in the life of the city and to share a culinary ritual that goes back millennia.
proper technique

So what, exactly, is this soup that's so much a part of Belém's identity? For readers who've been following these recent Flavors of Brazil posts on the foods of Belém it won't be a surprise that the basis of tacacá is manioc. The broth that is at the center of tacacá is seasoned tucupi (the liquid that results from squeezing grated manioc root), thickened with manioc starch, also known as tapioca. The broth is enlivened with with a dash of hot chili peppers preserved in tucupi. Cooked in the broth are leaves of the anesthetic jambu, which deadens the mouth and makes the tongue tingle, and dried shrimp. That's all there is to it - spicy broth, jambu leaves and a few shrimp.

But to call tacacá simply a soup with a few shrimps and some greens is to sell it short. A well-prepared tacacá is marvelously delicious and a true end-of-the-afternoon pick-me-up. The spicy liquid, the tingly sensation in the mouth and the rich, salty tang of the shrimp awaken all your senses without leaving you feeling full or over-satiated. It's just what you need to carry you through the end of the day. It's the chicken soup which nourishes the soul of Belém.


  1. James, you know how to write about food. You had my mouth watering as I read your post over breakfast :).

    1. Thanks for the comment. I really do appreciate it.