One of the best superfoods that you can incorporate into your diet is the açaí berry that hails from South America. In the last two decades or so, açaí has spread in popularity around the world and it’s hard not to come by a café that doesn’t have an açaí bowl on the breakfast menu.
Famous for its deep purple colour, açaí can enhance the visual appeal of food and drink. There are over a million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #acai used and there are thousands of photos of influencers sipping on an açaí smoothie or eating an açaí bowl.
However, açaí has a long and rich history and has been traditionally eaten by Brazilians in the Amazon for thousands of years. In this article, I’m going to tell you everything there is to know about açaí berries including:
– Where açaí comes from
– What açaí tastes like
– How to pronounce ‘açaí’
– Nutrients found in açaí
– How açaí spread to the rest of the world
– Where you can buy açaí
– Suggestions on what to make with açaí
Where açaí comes from
The açaí palm tree is found in Central and South America and produces this purple fruit. Açaí berries grow in large bunches up to 15 metres off the ground. To this day, the local people farm the area and live in houses along the Amazon River that runs through the jungle. The ribeirinhos, or river people harvest and prepare açaí in the same way that they have for centuries.
How is açaí harvested?
Harvesting açaí is no easy feat. Farmers loop a piece of hessian fabric around their feet and climb to the top of the palm tree. Then they pull out a machete attached to their belt loop and cut the clump of branches where the berries are and then slide back down the tree. This is how they have always harvested these dark purple berries. While in appearance they look like blueberries, they are much harder. The stone inside the fruit takes up a lot of space.
How is açaí turned into frozen pulp?
Açaí used to be turned into pulp by hand, but now it’s done with machines. The local people soak the berries for hours in water to soften the skin and flesh. They then eat the thick purple pulp as it is with fish or game, or in a soup.
Today, berries are collected in baskets and taken to processing facilities by boat. Açaí berries are placed in automatic pulp extraction machines where the pulp is separated from the stone. The pulp is then pasteurised and frozen in packages before being shipped off internationally. Açaí has to be shipped frozen as it can spoil easily.
What açaí tastes like
The açaí berry has a unique flavour. It has a creamy texture and some people say its flavour has hints of unsweetened chocolate. The berry is quite acidic, so it pairs well with sweet fruits, honey and sweeteners. Açaí is used as the base for an açaí bowl and the texture should be thick and creamy. Frozen açaí is much better to use than powdered açaí as it has more flavour and texture.
In countries such as America and Australia, açaí is usually consumed for breakfast or in a drink but in parts of Brazil, it is eaten as a main dish for lunch or dinner with fish or in soup.
How to pronounce ‘açaí’
The word ‘açaí’ is pronounced (‘ah-sah-ee’) and it comes from the indigenous language called Tupi Guarani. The word itself means ‘fruit that cries’, so a fruit that expels water.
Nutrients found in açaí
This little berry is packed with nutrients. It’s high in healthy fats like omega fatty acids and has more antioxidants than blueberries. It’s also low in sodium, cholesterol and natural sugars.
How açaí spread to the rest of the world
For many centuries, açaí was only consumed by the indigenous people in the Amazon, but in the early ‘70s, some river people started migrating to the northern Brazilian cities of Macapá and Belém selling açaí at roadside stalls. To this day, you can still find açaí being sold by vendors on the side of the road with the price of açaí written on boards beside them.
In the ‘80s, açaí started popping up in Rio and Sao Paulo where açaí was becoming part of the diet for people at gyms training in jujitsu. Açaí was seen as a great energy booster for athletes, and before long surfers and volleyball players were starting to eat it too. In the big cities, açaí was served like ice-cream because the pulp degrades quickly.
Açaí was still almost unknown outside of Brazil until two American brothers, Ryan and Jeremy Black started exporting it to the United States in the early 2000s. This purple berry blew up in popularity and all sorts of products popped up that had açaí in them including vodka, skin creams, lip balms and wines.
Where you can buy açaí
While açaí is still an exotic fruit, it’s much easier to get your hands on it these days and a lot of supermarkets stock açaí with their frozen produce. You can usually find powdered açaí too, which can be stored longer but for flavour, frozen açaí wins every time.
Suggestions on what to make with açaí
Two popular things to make with açaí are açaí bowls and açaí smoothies.
Açaí bowls are quick and easy to make, but it’s important to create a creamy and thick base. All you need to make an açaí bowl is a good high-speed blender. There are plenty of açaí bowl recipes online but you can think of your own recipe by combining your favourite fruits, juices, seeds, nuts and milk.
Another popular way of using açaí is putting it in a smoothie with other berries, such as strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. Get creative and create your own unique smoothie.