Should you travel to the Amazon one day and enter one the ubiquitous stores selling "AÇAI" (pronounced "ah-sigh-EE", with the accent on the last syllable), you may be in for a surprise: No açai fruits anywhere, only plastic bags containing a dark purple liquid! Why? Because natives don’t the açai fruits themselves which consist of a large, inedible seed covered by a very thin, edible skin. Understandably so: Imagine a blueberry with a hard seed in place of its fleshy pulp and just the purple skin around it: you could scrape the skin off the seed in your mouth but how much fun would that be?
Therefore, since ancient times, Amazon natives separate the thin, edible part of the fruit from its seed in a manual or machine-based grinding process and mix it with water. The result is a gravy-like, dark purple liquid commonly referred to as “açai”. Traditionally - and still today in areas with no electricity - açai is made manually by smashing the fruits with a pestle over a terracotta plate (thereby separating the skin from the seed) and using water to wash the seeds off over a strainer (the seeds remaining on the strainer and the water/ground skin mixture flowing into a receptacle below). While nowadays açai is mostly made with AC-powered, stainless steel machines, the process still consists of the separation of the thin skin from the large seed and its mixture with potable water.
In the Amazon açai is much more than a fruit-based beverage: It’s a food. In açai’s heartland, the Amazon River estuary, natives consume several bowls of açai per day, either unsweetened, as a savory sauce accompanying fish, meat or shrimp, or sweetened, as a stand-alone meal. In rural areas açai is even given to babies as a substitute for their mother's milk. Rightly so! Açai is one of the healthiest foods known to man. And what better way to get all this nutrition than through a creamy, delicious liquid with a dark-chocolaty, mild flavor (pure açai is neither sweet nor tart).
The thicker the açai, the better. Why? Because the liquid’s viscosity is an indication of how many fruit solids - and therefore nutrients – it contains. In fact, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture defines the three grades of açai according to their fruit solids content: Açai “fino” or “popular” (lower grade) must contain a minimum of 8% solids. Açai “médio” (middle grade) must contain a minimum of 11% solids and açai “grosso” or “especial” (thick, special grade) at least 14% solids.
In the US, the FDA does not yet oblige manufacturers to disclose how much açai fruit solids there are in their beverages, nor has it established precise guidelines for labeling a product “açai” (as it does for “orange juice”, for example), so, before purchasing your product, make sure to carefully look at its ingredients and nutrition facts (the more omegas, fiber and protein, the better).