Veja magazine, Pato no Tucupi has its own category. According to the food guide, one restaurant is the city's best Italian, another has the best meat, while a restaurant called Lá em Casa (Back Home) is crowned with the honor of serving the city's best Pato no Tucupi.
The late founder of Lá em Casa, Paulo Martins, is often credited for bringing Brazil's attention to the culinary richness of the Amazon. An early advocate of the values of the Slow Food movement, Martins sniffed, smelled and tasted his way through the region's markets, forests and rivers, continually searching for those ingredients which exemplify the food ways of the Amazon. Although Sr. Martins died tragically young a few years ago, the kitchen of his restaurant continues under the supervision of his daughter, Daniela, and his influence continues to grow locally and nationally. Brazil's acknowledged top chef, Alex Atala, often speaks of Sr. Martins and how he was personally influenced and inspired by the chef from Belém.
On Flavors of Brazil's recent road trip to Belém, leaving Pato no Tucupi off the menu was unthinkable, and to our way of thinking, Lá em Casa was the logical place to sample it. The restaurant is located in the city's art and entertainment complex, called Estação das Docas. Situated on the banks of the river, Estação das Docas is a mix of performance spaces, shops and boutiques, restaurants, bars and even a craft brewety. Formerly a group of abandoned waterfront warehouses and depots, the area now is busy day and night with locals and tourists alike.
At Lá em Casa Pato no Tucupi is served traditionally. A large tureen comes to the table. Inside are several very generous pieces of duck in a thick yellow broth that also contains some spinach-like greens called jambu. The broth itself is the tucupi. The traditional side dishes are white rice, hot yellow peppers in vinegar and manioc farinha. The serving is large, and although the restaurant claims it serves only a single diner, it can easily serve two persons. (Sharing a dish for two persons is very common in Brazilian restaurants and asking to share will cause no embarrassment or problem anywhere).
Our Pato no Tucupi was wonderful and it was immediately clear that the dish is a prize-winner by rights. The duck was fall-off-the-bone tender and very lean, not fatty at all. The broth was complex and refreshingly acidic and the jambu was just plain fun. Eating jambu causes a slight by very distinctive anesthetic effect on the tongue and palate. It's as if one's mouth had "gone to sleep." Tingly, numb - the sensations are strange and wonderful. The effect lasts only a short time after finishing the dish, about 10 minutes, but it's an absolutely unique experience. The effect is caused by a compound found in jambu called spilanthol, an ingredient in many proprietary toothache powders and other such medicines.
Pato no Tucupi wouldn't be Pato no Tucupi without tucupi. And tucupi is not something you can make at home. Belém's central food market, Ver-o-peso, has hundreds of tucupi vendors, and the ingredient is available sporadically Brazil outside the Amazon basin, but it is not exported. Because of this, we realize that the recipe below is not something that you're likely to cook at home - you'll just have to fly to Belém yourself if you want to try it. But a culinary visit to Belém without a recipe for Pato no Tucupi would be incomplete. So here it is - enjoy.
RECIPE - Duck in Tucupi (Pato no Tucupi)
2 small free-range ducks (about 2 lb, 1 kg, each)
juice of 5 limes
5 heads of garlic, smashed
2 cups white wine
4 very mild chile peppers (Anaheim or similar)
salt to taste
6 quarts (6 liters) tucupi
1 bunch alfavaca (Amazonian basil)
1 bunch chicory
6 bunches jambu
Wash the ducks well in running water. In a large bowl combine the ducks, lime juice, three of the smashed whole heads of garlic, the white wine, 1 chile pepper, salt and water to cover. Marinade the ducks, refrigerated, for hours in this liquid.
The next day, preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Remove the duck from the marinade, pat dry and in a non-stick roasting pan, roast the ducks for 90 minutes. While the ducks are roasting, combine the tucupi, 3 chile peppers, 2 heads of garlic, the alfavaca and the chicory in a large stockpot and bring to a boil. Reserve.
Remove the ducks from the oven, let cool slightly, and cut or chop into serving-sized pieces. In a large saucepan, combine 2 quarts of the seasoned tucupi and the duck meat and simmer until the duck is very tender and beginning to fall off the bone. Meanwhile, wash the jambu in plenty of running water, the blanch in boiling water, refreshing immediately in cold water. Reserve the jambu.
Bring the remaining 4 quarts of seasoned tucupi to a boil. Divide the duck meat between 6 deep soup plates. Divide the refreshed jambu equally among the plates, the pour hot tucupi over all. Let stand for a minute or two to let the jambu warm thoroughly, then serve immediately, accompanied by plain white rice and toasted manioc flour (farinha).