Monday, July 12, 2010

INGREDIENTS: Cupuaçu - Chocolate's upstart cousin

Anyone who has paid much attention to the problems of deforestation and loss of biodiversity in Brazil's Amazon rainforest probably knows that the area has the highest rate of biodiversity in the world. One in ten of the total number of animal and plant species on Earth inhabit the Amazon rainforest. Some experts have estimated that in that region, one square kilometer of land might host 75,000 types of trees, and 150,000 species of higher plants. (Those numbers are not typos!) The total number of species that have been catalogued to date is approximately 438,000, and there are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands more still to be discovered.

Recently, several Amazonian plant species which have always been important food and/or medicinal sources in Brazil have started to gain fame outside of Brazil, principally in North America, Europe and Japan. They are often marketed as "superfood" and outrageous claims are made as to their healthful properties. This is not to say that these foods don't have such properties, it's just that they are sometimes overmarketed as a panacaea for every kind of ill. In the past Flavors of Brazil has featured discussions of the açaí berry and of guaraná, both of which come from the Amazon. (Click their names in bold print to read more about these fruits.)

Recently, I've noticed that both here in Brazil, and in publications in North America the word cupuaçu (pronounced coop-oo-ah-SOO) is starting to pop up more and more, and some are claiming it to be the next Amazonian superfood. I've eaten cupuaçu ice cream, had cupuaçu mousse, both of which have been commonly available in Brazil for a long time, but now I'm seeing cosmetics and soaps made with it, extracts and creams available in health food stores, and frozen pulp for making cupuaçu juice at home. I began to wonder if it lived up to its hype.

A very little research led me to the first surprising fact about this fruit of the rainforest - it's a member of the genus Theobroma, meaning "food of the gods", whose most famous member is cacau, the tree that gives us chocolate. Theobroma cacau is the cacau tree, and Theobroma grandiflorum is the cupuaçuzeiro, the cupuaçu tree. This tree grows wild in the rainforest, and reaches heights of up to 70 feet. The cupuaçu fruit itself is large, up to a foot long (30 cm.) with a hard brown shell enclosing several seed pods, each of which contains the custardy, creamy fruit called cupuaçu.

Although describing what something tastes like is extremely difficult - most things taste like themselves - the highly aromatic and flavored cupuaçu fruit is often described as tasting like a mixture of chocolate, pineapple and/or bubblegum. I would agree with that flavor profile, and know that I know the botanical family tree of the cupuaçu I understand where that "hint of chocolate" comes from. I personally find the bubblegum flavor comes through stronger than the pineapple, but some of my friends find that the pineapple taste and aroma is predominant.

In addition to sharing similar flavors, cousins cacau and cupuaçu share another characteristic. Both fruits provide a rich hydrating fat, called a "butter." Cocoa fat (or cocoa butter) is used both in cooking and as a lotion for its hydrating properties. The fat of the cupuaçu fruit is equally suited to both roles.

In the next few posts, Flavors of Brazil will feature some traditional and typical recipes for dishes made with cupuaçu. Like açaí and guaraná, if cupuaçu isn't available yet in your nearby health food store it will be soon. Try it - you'll find the flavor exotic and appealing, the creamy texture divine, and if the ads and blurbs can be believed, you'll be ingesting one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Not a bad deal, I'd say.

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