story by Alison Clare Steingold
photo by Ann Cecil
For as long as surfers have cruised the Brazilian breaks, they’ve been sustaining themselves with bowls of purple goo.
No, it’s not poi, it’s açai (ah-SIGH-ee), a berry touted as an Amazonian “superfood” for its rich nutritive content and antioxidant punch. The thick purée of açai pulp, known as açaí na tijela in Portuguese and eaten in Brazil’s myriad beach communities, has a velvety texture well matched to its berry-infused, brooding, dark-chocolate taste. It’s most often mixed with granola and other fruit and eaten as a meal in itself. Most health-conscious Americans are familiar with açai, but it might come as a surprise that tiny Hawai‘i accounts for the most sales, by far, of the rainforest berry outside of Brazil.
While on a month-long surfing expedition to Brazil, brothers Ron and Jeremy Black of California discovered this energizing surfers’ snack; they ate açai bowls daily. By the end of their trip, the entrepreneurial duo founded Sambazon to import the frozen pulp.
Some might see açai’s impressive visibility in the Islands as an anomaly, but not Jeremy Black: “In Hawai‘i there are a lot of surfers, and that’s where açai found its popularity. With so many health-conscious surfers, word of mouth spread like wildfire.”
When launching Sambazon in 2001, the Blacks introduced the protein-rich berry at locations such as Wailua Bakery in Hale‘iwa and Lanikai Juice in Kailua. Other juice bars took notice. Before long the satisfying bowl and the now familiar, Concord-color smoothie became a staple of the surfer circuit, not to mention a novelty for visiting tourists. Nowadays, juice joints such as Diamond Head Cove Health Bar offer the hearty Da Mana Cove Bowl: organic granola, blueberry, strawberry, bee pollen and honey heaped on a bed of açai. Under $10, it’s a simple, inexpensive meal for an active (and perennially cash-poor) demographic.
But even in the wake of açai’s moment in the mainstream sun, Black knows the surf set is still açai’s big sell. “Pro and amateur surfers try it when they’re in Brazil, and they can’t believe it when they see it stateside,” he says. “Rob Machado and Kelly Slater are in love with the stuff. Kelly told me, ‘Thank God you got it!’” HH