The Amazon's mouth-watering 'fifth flavour'
The ancestral sauce of black tucupi is making its way onto the menus of some of South America's best restaurants, bringing a new sense of pride to an age-old tradition.
By Catherine Balston
23 November 2020
It all started with a bottle of chilli sauce. It was so fiery it makes my eyes water just thinking about it. I had bought it in 2014 from an old woman in Paraitepuy, a Venezuelan village near the base of Monte Roraima. It was the end of a seven-day hike up the table-top mountain, a sacred place for the local Pemon people, from which waterfalls spill over the edge in dizzying vertical drops. The sauce came home with me where it stayed, lurking unused in my kitchen cupboard for the next four years as it was far too hot for my palate.
Some people compare it to soy, some to Worcestershire sauce, but chefs simply see it as something unique
A couple of years later, I discovered that this sauce was in fact black tucupi, a thick, dark sauce rich in the satisfying savouriness of umami, the so-called "fifth flavour". Little-known beyond indigenous communities in the Amazon, it is being discovered by high-profile chefs in São Paulo, Lima, Bogotá and even Paris. Curious to know more, I began to dig into its origins, and what emerged was a tale of ancestral wisdom, rare Amazonian languages, poison and layers of intrigue that thickened, just like the sauce, the deeper I dug.
I am not the first person to be fascinated by black tucupi. The first written record of the sauce dates to 1929, in a posthumous publication by the Italian explorer and ethnographer Ermanno Stradelli: "To my taste, it is the king of sauces," he wrote, "as much for game as for fish... and to which extraordinary cures can be attributed."
Stradelli had discovered black tucupi during one of a number of expeditions deep into the Amazon rainforest in the 1880s and 1890s. The unique flavours of the Amazon enchanted him, as they had the Dutch, English and Portuguese explorers who had been shipping their "discoveries" back to Europe as far back as the 16th Century. When writing about this king of sauces, Stradelli referred to it as tucupi pixuna (pronounced "pishuna") - pixuna meaning "black" in Nheengatu, a now-severely endangered language that was spoken all across the Amazon region until the late 1800s.
Tucupi pixuna, tucupi negro, kumaji, ají negro, kanyzi pudidy and cassareep are all different names for the same sauce. It's a linguistic register of some of the indigenous nations that still make black tucupi right across the Amazon as far and wide as Guyana, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. "When was black tucupi discovered? Who discovered it? No-one will ever know because it was thousands of years ago," explained Sandra Baré, from the Baré people that live in the Upper Rio Negro region, one of a handful of ethnic groups who still speak Nheengatu and whose tucupi pixuna is sold in markets around São Gabriel da Cachoeira, on the banks of the Rio Negro.
As for how it is made, that is one question Baré can answer, and I happily listened to her explain the process as part of a cooking class on manioc, a root vegetable (also known as cassava, or tapioca when in its pure starch form) that is now the staple food for hundreds of millions of people across the world. "Manioc has been sustaining indigenous nations for many years," said Baré. She detailed the various techniques for turning bitter manioc into breads and flours, as well as the process by which bitter manioc juice is simmered down from a yellow liquid into dark and syrupy black tucupi.
"You have to be really careful cooking black tucupi because bitter manioc kills," Baré warned. "Anyone who drinks the raw juice won't take two steps before falling down dead." It turns out bitter manioc is packed with toxic cyanide, and I wonder how many people over the years have literally fallen at that first hurdle. None hopefully, at least not for a couple of millennia, as bitter manioc has been cultivated and cooked (which brings the cyanide down to safe levels) by the Amazon's indigenous nations as far back as 4,000 years.
Denise Rohnelt de Araújo, a Brazilian cook and food writer, first came across Stradelli's reference to tucupi pixuna 10 years ago in História da Alimentação no Brasil, an encyclopaedic register of Brazil's diverse culinary history that was first published in 1963 by the historian Luís da Câmara Cascudo. She's been on its trail ever since, collecting samples from all over the Amazon. Late last year, when I visited her home in Boa Vista in Brazil's northernmost state of Roraima, she presented me with a box full of bottles in all shapes and sizes.
"When I read Stradelli's description of this king of sauces, I had to find out more," de Araújo told me. "There are various different ways to make black tucupi and none of them are the same. The only thing they have in common is that it's a reduction of bitter manioc juice. Some remove the manioc starch, others don't. Some are fermented. Others add ants. The Venezuelans add chilli. In Guyana you have clove and cinnamon. Some have a slight bitterness or smokiness. Every ethnic group does it their own way."
Boa Vista was my jumping-off point into the interior of Roraima to see for myself how different indigenous peoples make black tucupi. Here in the heart of the Amazonian savannah on the triple border of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana, hot, dry air blows across a mainly grassy landscape. At Tabalascada, about 24km outside Boa Vista, a Wapichana community are fighting to preserve their land and their culture. Monoculture crop farming and urban development encroach from all sides. I hiked from the village into the forest with a community leader, Marcolino da Silva, to see their manioc plantation. The young plants were only five months old and nearly twice my height already, with leaves fanning out at the top of thin stems.
Back in the village, a long table was being laid for lunch under the shade of some tall mango trees with parakeets screeching overhead. The shy but lively 62-year old Dona Carol, da Silva's mother, is the village expert in making black tucupi, and she busied about bringing dishes to the table and clapping a nosy cockerel away. Everything she laid out was made with manioc, from the bread (beiju) to a manioc and fish stew (damorida) and a jug of boozy fermented manioc (caxiri). The prints of trainers, bare feet and animal claws in the dry earth charted the afternoon's comings and goings, and as the sun started its downward slide and the caxiri went to my head, I eyed up a nearby hammock. Dona Carol has been teaching the younger generation her black tucupi recipe. "They have to learn to do this to not forget our Wapichana culture," she said. "I am here today but who knows about tomorrow. Death knows no age."
Anyone who drinks the raw juice won't take two steps before falling down dead
My next stop, Yupukari, was just over the border in Guyana's Rupununi region. In a small Macuxi village, home to about 100 families, I was spending three days learning how to make black tucupi. I met the team at Caiman House, an eco-lodge in the village and one of a dozen or so eco-lodges run by indigenous peoples in the interior wilderness of Guyana. Nature lovers come here to explore the "land of the giants", as it has been called; the world's largest otters, spiders, anteaters, rodents and eagles can all be spotted here.
I had my sights set on black tucupi, however, known in Guyana as cassareep, or cassava sauce. This is the only country in the Amazon Basin where black tucupi has made its way into the national cuisine. It's an essential ingredient in pepperpot, a meat stew in which black tucupi mingles with the cloves and cinnamon of Guyana's Caribbean heritage. Industrially made cassareep is sold everywhere in Guyana, but I'd come to learn the traditional, artisanal way.
My next two days were spent with two local women as they harvested, peeled and grated nearly 100kg of manioc. The grated manioc was stuffed into a plaited palm tube called a matapi (or tipiti in Brazil), which looks like the engorged belly of an anaconda before it is stretched out thin, squeezing the manioc juice into a bowl below. Next, the juice rests for a few hours to let the solid starch (tapioca) decant, and the juice was then poured into a cauldron and left to simmer over a wood fire for around four or five hours.
In the meantime, the women transformed the grated manioc into toasted flour and flatbread. A crowd of onlookers shuffled around the space to avoid the smoke as it curled up and around. Things got tense in the final minutes as the simmering manioc juice begins to camarelise, turning red and then dark brown, then as thick as molasses and hastily whipped off the fire before it burned. Once it had cooled we all dipped the flatbread into the sauce and tasted the flavour bomb: intense, sweet and mildly sour.
The next day, it was added to a fragrant bowl of tuma pot - a traditional fish stew - served for lunch on my last day. I also took a bottle home with me, all the more valuable having seen the backbreaking work in making it.
Outside of indigenous communities, black tucupi evangelists in some of South America's best restaurants are getting excited about its umami potential, glazing meats with it, adding it to dressings, broths and sauces, and even mixing it in Bloody Marys.
In São Paulo, chef Helena Rizzo glazes fish with black tucupi at Maní restaurant; while Carla Pernambuco served confit duck with a black tucupi sauce at Carlota. On the far side of the continent in the Peruvian capital, Lima, high-profile chefs have been experimenting with black tucupi on their menus for a few years already. Their supply, sold in elegant glass bottles in Lima's upmarket delis, comes from Bora and Huitito women near Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon thanks to a partnership with NGO Despensa Amazónica. Pedro Miguel Schiaffino has put it at the heart of his menu at new casual diner Boa Street Food, infusing tomato sauce, pirarucu (fish) sausages and smoked pork tacos with its richness; while Gaston Acúrio brushes it on roasted cauliflower at Astrid y Gastón.
Black tucupi evangelists in some of South America's best restaurants are getting excited about its umami potential
"Some people compare it to soy, some to Worcestershire sauce, but chefs simply see it as something unique," said Joanna Martins, whose Brazilian food company Manioca sells black tucupi to retailers. She supplies some of Brazil's top chefs with her version and is testing out the US market, too.
The Wapichana community in Tabalascada has plans to launch a certified, branded version to Brazilian retailers next year. They sell it locally and informally for now but are building up their capacity through a partnership with Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) as well as government funding thanks to Joênia Wapichana (the first indigenous woman to be voted into the Brazilian congress).
"Black tucupi is an incredible product that respects the Wapichana way of life and their traditional agricultural systems, and that in turn helps protect biodiversity and the forest," said ISA's Amanda Latosinski. "For the youngsters, the chance to earn an income is an incentive to not leave for the city, and to resist the pressures of destructive activities like mining."
It's a win-win for the indigenous communities. And it's a win-win for those who can get their hands on a precious bottle - the chance to try a unique, umami flavour and support a tradition that runs deep into the heart of the Amazon. I can still only handle a few drops at a time of the fiery black tucupi bought all those years ago in Venezuela, but the treacle-like cassareep from Guyana is black gold, used in my cooking as sparingly as my willpower allows.
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