Long before the arrival of the small purple acai fruit and much less the knowledge of such to the USA, and more broadly the entire world the people of the Amazon Basin have enjoyed its life sustaining power. Now these local river dwellers or “Riberinhos” are enjoying a new sustaining force from the acai: economic sustenance. The indigenous Amazonians are not wafer thin from consuming the acai but rather hearty and healthy. They eat acai because it is a readily available source of protein, fiber, fatty acids Omega 6 & 9, polyphenols, plant sterols, and immune powerhouse anthocyanins. To them it is a complete food source. Acai berry juice has been a staple to their diets for years.
The first accounts of acai are found recorded in the history books by early explorers and scientists. In 1768 the botanists Joseph Banks accompanied Captain Cook on his legendary voyage around the Pacific Rim. The scientists that made the expedition to Brazil were interested in what foods the natives consumed. Banks made an entry into his journal dating back to December of 1768, where he documented the newly discovered Acai as a fruit eaten by the natives. He records in his journal that the “Acai palm berries appear much like black grapes but for eating have scarce any pulp covering a very large stone.”
Portuguese explorers of the 18th and 19th century regularly visited the same Amazon region explored by Cook and Banks. Before the days of photography drawings were made during such journeys to better document and capture their discoveries. There were drawings made during a journey through the Amazon flood plains by these intrepid Portuguese explorers. These drawings that were made during a 1791 expedition into the Amazon depicted Amazonian natives making their living along the banks of the river’s tributaries.
One of the drawings made during this expedition depicted a native who was holding Acai fruits in one hand while standing next to a basket full of them at his feet. This practice is still used today to harvest the acai. The Acai palm trees were also depicted in the background of the illustration.
William Henry Edwards, who was a well-known entomologist (a studier of insects), naturalist, and explorer, wrote a book entitled “A Voyage up the River Amazon”. In his book he describes a common scene of that time along the streets of Belem in the state of Para, Brazil. “Everywhere are seen about the streets young women, blacks or Indians, bearing upon their heads large trays of doces, or sweetmeats and cakes, for sale. These things are made by their mistresses, and are thus marketed. Nor do the first ladies of the city consider it beneath their dignity thus to traffic, and we heard of some notable examples where the money received for the doces had accumulated to independent fortunes. From similar large trays, other women are huckstering every variety of vegetables or fruits; and not unfrequently meets the ear the cry of as-sy-ee, the last syllable prolonged to a shrill scream. What assai may be we shall soon explain.”
“From various palm-fruits are prepared substances in great request among different classes of people; but most delightful of all is that from the Euterpe edulis, known as assai, or, more familiarly, as was-sy-ee’. This palm grows to a height of from thirty to forty feet, with a stem scarcely larger than one’s arm. From the top a number of long leaves, their webs cut, as it were, into narrow ribbons, are waving in the wind. Below the leaves one, two, and rarely three stems put forth, at first enclosed in a spatha or sheath, resembling woven bark. This falling off, there is disclosed a tree-like stalk with divergent limbs in every direction, covered with green berries, the size of marbles; these soon turn purple, and are fully ripe. Flocks of toucans, parrots, and other fruit-loving birds, are first to discover them; but there are too many for even the birds. The fruit is covered by a thick skin, beneath which, embedded in a very slight pulp, is the stone. Warm water is poured on to loosen the skin, and the berries are briskly rolled together in a large vessel. The stones are thrown out, the liquid is strained off the skins, and there is left a thick, cream-like substance of a purple color. To a stranger the taste is usually disagreeable, but soon it becomes more prized than all fruits beside, and is as much a necessity as one’s dinner.”
As I have walked the streets of the city of Belem and the historic open air market “Ver-O-Peso”, which means literally to “see the weight”. I can easily imagine these early explorers coursing up the Amazon and learning of this remarkable fruit from the Indians. In fact I have eaten fresh Acai from an “Acaizeiro” or acai shop within a stones’ throw of this incredible market. It is prepared as a purple porridge with the consistency of yogurt or pudding with a taste that is raw and similar to avocado. It is not naturally sweet so it takes adding some honey or sugar to make it taste good. The market place comes alive well before the break of day with everything from fresh fish brought out of the Amazon River to the fruits from the surrounding jungles to the handmade wares all arriving and put on display at the individual booths under the canvas tarps. The sights and smells are unforgettable with strange prehistoric looking fish and brightly colored fruits at every turn. Then there are the rows and rows of woven bushel baskets brimming with the purple acai berries, the new gold of the Amazon.
Acai berries been consumed for centuries in Brazil. It has only been within the last century that Acai was made available outside the Amazon Basin for consumption within the country. Most sources cite Rio de Janeiro and the “Carioca’s” as being responsible for making Acai popular in Brazil. The most common form of acai found here is in sorbets, ice creams, jellies and juices. The Acai fruit is so delicate that only the “Riberinhos” get to enjoy it fresh. From Rio Acai traveled south into Sao Paulo the business capital of Brazil and from there the rest of the country and ultimately world.
About 10 to 12 years ago Acai made its way into the US and was commercialized by a couple of surfers who had enjoyed the tasty purple pudding while on a surfing safari off the coast of Fortaleza. Acai is now available more widely in a juice form and or sorbet in the U.S. In some places it is possible to get acai as a jam or jelly. Acai is now available worldwide. The popularity of this fruit was brought to light on a talk show in the United States hosted by Oprah Winfrey. On a particular episode her guest was Dr. Oz who spoke highly of the health benefits of acai and the juice while not endorsing any one company. Since then many companies have popped up including Multilevel Marketing companies selling expensive fruit juice blends with acai and weight loss pills claiming to contain acai. The most credible of U.S. based acai products are available in juice form from reputable retail vendors. Only one Acai juice is endorsed and promoted by a doctor and that is Dr. Tim’s Brazilian Acai. More doctors recommend this particular brand because of its high quality and the benefits reported by their patients.
Acai berry is a remarkable fruit for many reasons because it has physically sustained generations of Amazonian Indian tribes throughout the centuries and now potentially the world. The supply of acai is endless as it grows throughout the entire Amazon Basin. Its only real threat is the illegal logging activity and the old slash and burn techniques that are now outlawed. But with the world clamoring for more of this purple power the tiny acai fruit has the potential to economically sustain the Amazon region but also protect and sustain the rain forest.