Hunting for Acai in Rio de Janeiro
“No, we don’t sell that here” may have been the theme of my trip to Brazil.
Being a health-food fanatic, I was almost as excited to try açaí berries in Brazil as I was to see the Christ the Redeemer statue. Really, I was beyond stoked for it. I pictured myself sitting at breakfast everyday with an overflowing bowl of gorgeously dark, tart berries that contained enough antioxidants to ward of every illness for the rest of my life.
“Do you want sugar on that?/ Voce quer acucar?” I imagined a waiter saying.
“Just a little/So um pouco,” I’d reply.
Clearly I’d spent more time fantasizing about eating açaí berries, and not enough time researching them! I fell victim to the common mistake of expecting something to be exactly how I’d imagined (frequently true of both travel destinations and lovers, no?)
Reality check: Açaí berries grow in the Amazon and are extremely hard to transport in berry form. Thus, if you are not staying in the Amazon during your trip to Brazil, you will find it nearly IMPOSSIBLE to find the actual berries. I wasted SO much time looking for them on my trip, and I don’t want anyone to repeat my mistake!
However there are signs for açaí EVERYWHERE in Brazil. So what are they offering if it’s not the fruit?
A dessert. A slushy. A puree of açaí juice, ice, sugar, and loads of guarana syrup (a thick concentrated syrup used to flavor Red Bull. You’ll also find guarana soda everywhere) that will give you a sugar rush and a brain freeze faster than a 41-oz Slurpee from 7/11.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that this concoction is delicious, and perfectly refreshing on a sweltering afternoon. I even ate it ~3 times. BUT THERE IS NO WAY IT’S HEALTHY. It is almost cloyingly sweet, and is best when shared with someone, but even so you’ll likely get a serious sugar crash. I’m convinced you could eat 2 cupcakes and consume way less sugar than is offered by this treat. But if you like, you can up the sugar content by actually adding sliced bananas, granola, and honey to your bowl of acai puree. Seriously giving myself a cavity just thinking about it…
Lucky for you, I was so determined to eat unsweetened açaí that I went on a hunt across Rio de Janeiro for it. After a tip from a waiter at a gorgeous outdoor bohemian cafe in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, I wound up at Feira de Sao Cristovao. (I was told that it was one of two places in Rio that MIGHT have pure açaí available…only because it offered some traditional foods and crafts from the northern region of Brazil.)
Once inside the Feira, I was greeted by blasting 80s music, shops containing figurines doing things so disturbing that I can’t even discuss them here, and plenty of people who looked at me as if I had grown 2 heads when I asked where to find pure açaí.
Eventually I was lead down a creepy dark corridor of the Feira, to an unassuming little restaurant that advertised açaí on a bold yellow sign. A little bummed since this looked like every other cafe and restaurant I had seen with sweetened açaí slush, I asked the woman working if she had pure açaí. Blatantly confused, she replied “Yes, but it’s not sweet. It’s better to eat açaí blended with sugar and guarana – it is very delicious.” Of course I insisted on the pure stuff, and she gave me a sample so I could see what I was getting myself into.
Blech! It tasted like dirt. There was a subtle hint of blueberry, but overall it tasted similar to what I imagine tree bark tastes like. Obviously I ordered a cup and added my own sugar to it in order to eat it (at least I could know how much sugar was in there!) I’m sure she overcharged us for the pure açaí, and the dark purple juice stained my teeth for an hour, but I felt pretty damn accomplished.
Looking back, I’d bet you can find the pure açaí in many places in Rio, you just need to find someone willing to sell it to you pre-processed. Can you find the berries in Rio? I don’t know, but it’s probably not worth your time looking. You’d be better off eating the sweet stuff and hitting the gym when you get home.
Have you ever been disappointed by food in another country?