America: Bowled Over by Açaí

Susannah Chen
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The signature purple of acai in The Classic Acai from Ruru Kitchen

Chances are you’ve seen them on the Internet: magenta-hued fruit purées, piled to the brim in bowls and attractively garnished with sliced strawberries and bananas that are splayed out like playing cards. Meet açaí bowls: smoothies blended with açaí and garnished in a bowl with toppings.

Açaí (pronounced “ah-sigh-EE”) refers to the small purple berries of açaí palm trees. Nicknamed “purple gold” for its health benefits, the fruit has less sugar than a blueberry, more iron than spinach, and a glut of antioxidants, calcium, fiber, and heart-healthy omega fats. It’s native to the Amazon, where harvesters have climbed wild açaí palms to pick fruit since the beginning of history, soaking them first to soften their tough skins, then mashing the fruit and separating it from the pit before eating it.

Until the 1970s, açaí was a regional food that only had recognition in the Amazon river basin, where the pulp was consumed unsweetened, its slightly bitter flavor embraced. Açaí na tigela (“açaí in the bowl”)—a dish of berry mash served with tapioca and savory items like dried fish or shrimp—became an inexpensive form of sustenance for struggling families in northern Brazil. In the 1980s, açaí made its way to cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, where due to a short shelf life it was shipped frozen and served like ice cream. It developed a reputation as fuel for martial arts. 

Within the next decade, açaí had migrated to coastal cities, where surfer communities supported a nascent açaí bar scene. Waterfront juice shops on the beaches of Rio and elsewhere sold a new, sweet take on açaí na tigela: frozen açaí pulp blended like a smoothie, poured into a bowl, and topped with fresh fruit, guaraná syrup, and granola. Beach bums loved both the fruity taste and the energy boost.

Meanwhile, environmental scientists working to save the Amazon began a campaign to market Brazil’s little-known but nutrient-dense fruit varieties to Americans as a way for Amazonian farmers to make a better living. In 2000, Brazil began exporting açaí to North America, although the fruit remained little known until 2008, when Dr. Oz appeared on Oprah to discuss açaí’s health benefits. 

In 2013 açaí reached peak popularity in the U.S. when the açaí bowl finally made it to America. This was thanks to three undeniable virtues. First, it boasted a long list of health benefits—perfect for the wellness movement that was sweeping the country. Secondly, its appearance, with attractively-arranged fruit and an eye-catching purple hue, was universally photogenic, with the #smoothiebowl hashtag spreading like wildfire on Instagram. And then there was the açaí bowl’s crowd-pleasing taste. “Acai bowls look like ice cream, almost taste like ice cream, and make you feel good about your breakfast choice,” a HuffPost food editor wrote in 2014, adding: “It's what breakfast dreams are made of.”

“Superfood café” chains with names like Rush Bowls, SoBol, Frutta Bowls, and Juice It Up! became popular overnight, expanding across the country aggressively. By 2018, the global açaí berry market size had topped $892 million. Vitality Bowls, a top chain, announced last year that it had surpassed sales of 5 million açaí bowls in just five years of existence. Even Costco jumped on the bandwagon, offering $4.99 açaí bowls as a wholesome alternative to its famous hot dogs.

With more double-digit growth projected in the U.S. over the next six years, the açaí bowl trend doesn’t show much sign of slowing down—and in addition to food and beverages, you can expect to see açaí appear as a star ingredient in other wares from face masks to dietary supplements.

Here’s where you can try açaí in San Francisco:

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  • In the goji berry-topped Green Goliath at Bowl’D Acai 
  • As one of the layers in a parfait with chia pudding at Acai R
  • With another superfood, moringa, in the Superbowl Mix at Ruru Kitchen
  • Topped with seasonal fruit and pepitas at L’acajou Bakery and Cafe
  • Alongside classic Brazilian add-ins like guaraná in the Lucia at Bebebar
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