Jambú is a flowering herb plant, also known as toothache plant or paracress as the leaves and flower heads contain an analgesic agent spilanthol used to numb toothache. It is native to the tropics of Brazil, and is grown as an ornamental (and occasionally as a medicinal) in various parts of the world. A small, erect plant, it grows quickly and sends up gold and red flower inflorescences. It is frost-sensitive but perennial in warmer climates. The name paracress is in reference to the Northern Brazil state Pará. It is also known in Portuguese as agrião do Pará (as well as jambú).
For culinary purposes, small amounts of shredded fresh leaves add a unique flavour to salads. Cooked leaves lose their strong flavour and may be used as leafy greens. Both fresh and cooked leaves are used in dishes (such as stews like tacacá) in Belém and other parts of Northern Brazil, often combined with chillies and garlic to add flavor and vitamins to other foods.
Eating a whole flower bud results in a grassy taste, followed by an extremely strong tingling or numbing sensation and often excessive saliva production and a cooling sensation in the throat. If you are looking for a unique combination when in Belém, go to the restaurant Café Imaginário for a jambú pizza.
Tacacá may sound funny to the foreign ear but it’s serious business in Northern Brazil, particularly the states of Amazonas and Pará, where it is well loved and widely consumed. It is made with jambú (a native variety of paracress, a flowering herb with slight anesthetic properties), and tucupi (a light yellow broth made with wild cassava), as well as dry shrimps and small yellow peppers. It must be served extremely hot in a cuia (gourd). The dish is said to derive from an local indigenous soup called mani poi.
Traditionally, one doesn’t use any type of utensil to take out the shrimp or jambu, aside from one’s own fingers; but in the interests of being practical, it’s not uncommon to see a small wooden spoon being used.
The Paraense (person from Pará) journalist Raymundo Mário Sobral states, “It is in the tacacá that one recognizes the Paraense. The legitimate way would be to never commit sacrilege by consuming tacacá while using even a toothpick.”
Given that the dish is served quite hot, it became custom around the 1990’s to use a small basket at the base of the gourd, so as not to burn one’s hands.
It is also custom to consume tacacá in the afternoons, purchasing it on a public street at certain points throughout the city of Belém from vendors called tacacazeiras. Serving the delicacy as a main dish, however, is not common.