Acai. Pronounced ah-sah-ee. It’s only recently that those of us in the Western world discovered what tribal communities in the Amazon jungle have known for thousands of years: One little berry can pack quite a punch. Of deliciousness!
It was two brothers, Ryan and Jeremy Black, along with their friend Ed Nichols who “popularized” acai in the 1990s. They first discovered the treat while backpacking through Brazil. Initially unsure of what they were tasting they soon were hooked. Before long they started processing, freezing, and exporting it to the Southern California health food market. Since then acai has exploded onto the international scene, today becoming one of the most popular breakfast items in Australia. So what it is exactly?
In the wild, the acai berry grows underneath a thicket of palm fronds, along dark river banks and tidal pools. The little berries hang downward in dense strands like dozens of beaded necklaces. Resembling something like dark blueberries, they are actually hard as rocks when harvested. Traditionally, tribal peoples will soak the berries in water until they soften, remove the pit from the flesh, and use the remaining dark-purple pulp to compliment fish dinners or wild game roasted over a fire pit. Sometimes they will turn the acai pulp into a creamy, earthy soup with a flavor some have described as similar to unsweetened chocolate. Not only tasty, acai is also rich in the “good” omega-6 and omega-9 fats (like olive oil) and high in fiber and vitamin E- a crucial addition to a traditional jungle diet. For thousands of years it remained one of the best-kept secrets of the Amazon.
Then in the 1970s, as indigenous people like the Ribeirinhos ventured outward to northern cities, they brought their love of acai with them, selling the creamy pulp in ziplock bags at roadside stands. In the 1980’s the treat caught the attention of Brazilian martial-artists for its quick energy boost and easy digestion. Before long surfers and other endurance athletes got a taste and soon its popularity became ubiquitous throughout the country.
A decade later, a woman named Fernanda Mascitto and her husband Thiago would leave the hectic energy of Sao Paolo, Brazil and discover a much more tranquil Byron Bay. The perfect place to settle down and raise their family. Upon emigrating Fe would find a job at the Top Shop, which had only just been revamped by two brothers- Andy and Charlie Gordon- only six months earlier.
Fe would bring more than just a bubbly sense of humor and inviting energy to the shop. She had a suggestion. She pulled Andy and Charlie aside and made her pitch. We live in a hot and sunny surf town, like so many tourist spots on the coast of Brazil. So why not offer on the menu her favorite post-beach snack from back home? Acai.
So they did just that. And the rest is history.
At the Top Shop, our frozen acai is blended with banana for just the right creamy texture. It is then topped with homemade granola and a variety of fruits, cacao nibs, and shaved coconut flakes. It is one of the shop’s most popular breakfast items- the perfect sweet treat after a walk to the lighthouse or a long surf. And all these years later it is still the best version in town.
From the humid, mosquito-ridden jungle, to the bustling cities around Brazil, to the alternative markets of Southern California, and to the shores of Byron Bay, acai has become the breakfast bowl, to the delight of millions.
So if you haven’t already, come have a taste. Even if you pronounce it wrong- don’t worry- you’ll still start your day off right.