The Surprising History of the Açaí Bowl

The Surprising History of the Açaí Bowl

The açaí bowl. Beloved by surfers everywhere, the purple-hued dish was invented by Brazilians, adopted by Hawaiians, and—after a dizzying rise and moderate fall—is now all the rage in San Francisco, too. This made me curious. Where did this bowl of superfuel come from, and how did it go from unknown fruit to 90s buzzword to quasi-mainstream (at least here on the West Coast) breakfast staple?

Turns out, the presence of that pureed berry—imagine a shinier, darker blueberry amped up on antioxidants—is due in part to a mix of martial arts, Amazonian migration, and the willpower of a pair of California surfers. For anyone interested in a long read that touches the power of internet virality and America’s fascination with superfoods (yes, Dr. Oz makes an appearance), check out John Colapinto’s riveting New Yorker piece.

The Cliffs Notes version? The berries are grown in the Amazon, where they’ve been a staple in the diet of the ribeirinhos people for thousands of years. The flavor is often described as dirt-like or—more generously—earthy. Not exactly a selling point. But once a family of martial artists included the puree in its training diet for athletes, açaí began to appear on Rio menus as an ice-cream like treat, tarted up with sugar, guarana (a mild stimulant) and, eventually, sliced bananas and granola. Açaí, however, doesn’t travel well. That is, until two California brothers, wowed by the energy-boosting combo, found a way to import the frozen stuff. They then went to work marketing it as the healthiest food on the planet and, hundreds of variations later, it’s still a mighty healthy way to start your day.

Sure, you could make a bowl at home, but you’ll find more more Instagrammable bowls assembled by the pros. They’re spendy, but can you really put a price tag on the feeling of açaí-induced purity coursing through your veins?

Here are three of our favorite places to antioxidant-load on açai bowls:

Tacacá do Norte, Rio de Janeiro: Amazon-grown berries don’t travel well so, unless the rainforest is on your list, you’ll only find the frozen puree in Rio, where it’s heavily sweetened. At this tiny cafe, the açaí is creamy and cold, tapioca-topped, and just the right amount of sweet.

Aloha Bowl, Oahu: A new food truck with intensely refreshing island-style bowls: the Ali’i, topped with white peach sorbet and a dusting of frozen raspberries, and the crunchy Manoa bowl, with kale-and-spinach infused açaí, granola, and hemp seeds.

Bowl’d Açai, San Francisco (pictured): Another food truck, this one dishes out quarts of the stuff loaded with coconut, goji berries, pineapple, and more to local techies and other Union Square devotees. Watch for a brick-and-mortar location soon.

Photo by Lily Kaplan of the blog Eating Through San Francisco, who clearly loves her açaí bowls.

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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