In the heart of the Amazon with Alex Atala
South America's best known chef is on a mission to highlight the indigenous foods of the Amazon - and to transform Brazilian cooking
The Observer, Saturday 17 August 2013 12.59 BST
Manaus, Brazil, where the Rio Negro and Solimões rivers meet and the Amazon as we think of it begins. It's a city built on long-gone fortunes from the rubber trade and home to the world's most remote opera house, the inspiration for Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. I am here with Alex Atala, flame-haired, heavily tattooed, No 1 cook in South America and the only chef to appear on Time's list of 100 most influential people on the planet earlier this year. From druggy, bad-boy beginnings, Atala is now a serious figure on the global stage with an appetite to parlay his fame into influence.
We are at the start of a six-day trip into the area to meet members of the Baniwa, the Baré and other indigenous peoples that Atala's ATÁ Institute is working with, and to get a flavour of the Brazilian foods he is championing: Amazonian fruits, fermented manioc, ants. But first, a visit to a local restaurant where they are killing a 30kg turtle in our honour.
Like many river foods here, smaller turtles are caught and grown on farms. "I am super-excited about farming turtles," Atala tells me, although I am more conflicted, both about eating and farming them. We arrive to a spread of local produce: stunning arrays of exotic fish and fruits, turtle offal in its shell, turtle meat in stew.
We start with bodó, a prized prehistoric fish with no internal skeleton that can live for hours out of water in its armoured skin. Atala cracks one like a coconut and an intensely gamey, faecal stink saturates the airless room. I smile weakly and attempt to move away. I feel feeble, faint. Inside, the bodó is hollow, black, with a thin coating of grey flesh clinging to the shell. After 10 minutes of shuffling it around the plate, my appetite long fled with my sense of balance, I shudder and swallow a small piece. It's time to make room for turtle.
Bodó flesh has a murky taste marginally less grim than it smells. Stewed turtle flipper has a disturbing fishy flavour and the texture of tough rubber shoe. I retire depressed, defeated, not as well suited as I'd thought to the challenges of frontier food.
I am not alone. When Atala came to Europe in 1989 and started cooking (he thought it would pay better than the painting and decorating work he was doing), he didn't much like the food either. "I had never tasted salmon," he says. "Truffles, foie gras, caviar, I didn't like. It was the same emotion as coming as a kid to Amazonas to fish and hunt with my grandfather and father. I didn't enjoy some of the flavours and textures. They were just too strange. But at a certain point I started to feel nostalgic for the taste."
It was his reaction to truffles and foie gras that was to shape his life. Atala worked in kitchens in Belgium, France and Italy before he realised: "I couldn't cook French food as well as a French chef, or Italian like an Italian cook. But I also came to understand none of them could cook Brazilian food as well as me."
He returned to São Paulo and started to combine European techniques with indigenous produce. Success came quickly, his restaurant DOM opened in 1999, is currently ranked six in the world and is heavily tipped as a future number one. "A giant among chefs," says Noma's René Redzepi.
"The difference between being good, very good and exceptional as a cook," says Atala, "is in having the flavours in your memory. If I tell you mozzarella tastes of Italy and miso speaks of Japan, then tucupi [fermented manioc juice] and ants are the taste of Brazil."
Atala was speaking about ants the first time we met, in Copenhagen two years ago. It was a compelling mantra that would take me to Manaus: "Ants don't taste like lemon grass and ginger. Lemon grass and ginger taste like ants!"
Atala's own ant epiphany came courtesy of Dona Brasi, of the Baré people, one of the 23 ethnic groups who inhabit the region of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, our next stop, 1,000km deeper down the Rio Negro, close to the border with Colombia.
In his book DOM: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, Atala quotes an encounter with Dona Brasi, a fantastic cook.
"Which herbs did you put in this dish," he asks when first trying her food.
"Ants," replies Dona Brasi.
Atala repeats the question: "I would like to know which herbs you used in the recipe."
"Son, there are only ants."
Dona Brasi is cooking during our stay in São Gabriel at the Instituto Socio Ambiental (ISA), an NGO working to protect and promote indigenous culture. Its founder, Beto Ricardo, is also a founder of ATÁ with Atala and others, working to support small producers around the country.
Our rooms look out over the white waterfalls of the black river, everywhere an explosion of colour. The Baniwa have 300 words for jungle landscape and you can see 200 shades of green from the window. We eat on the terrace to the roar of rushing water, a pair of iridescent hummingbirds hovering in the corner. Over a meal of Dona Brasi's toasted manioc, spiky tucupi dressing and fish ribs, I feel my concerns about Amazon food fade away. Sweet, sour, hot, cold, crunchy, moist, fatty - this is brilliantly balanced cooking, at once intensely foreign and familiar.
As we eat, Atala tells a story about how he came to work with the anthropologists. About 10 years ago, he says, he bought a piece of land to farm manioc and was keen to build a relationship with his indigenous neighbours. Aware of malnutrition, he sent a "staple foods basket" to all the families. Feeling good about his role as philanthropist, he returned to find rubbish everywhere. Maddened, he gathered them for a lecture on sustainability. "But Alex," they responded, "for us, the packaging of fruit is its skin; for a fish it is the scales. You sent us plastic." Chastened, Atala realised, "playing God isn't simple" and for future work with indigenous people he would seek expert help. In the meantime, he sent his neighbours biodegradable baskets.
Dona Brasi is making manioc flour at her farm deep in the forest. More commonly known here as cassava, manioc is a building block of Brazilian food, 80% of the indigenous diet from 200 varieties of the root.
Clearings are made by fire for manioc to be ready for harvest within months. We watch as fresh root is dug, the pulp later squeezed in narrow sleeves. The liquid will be reduced over fire to become tucupi, the intensely umami-rich base for stocks and soups or to be mixed with ants for Dona Brasi's dressing. The starch will become tapioca. The flour, farinha, will be used as a staple, and for chibé, a fermented drink with water. This is a versatile food for half a billion people though largely unknown in the west.
Dona Brasi toasts manioc pulp in a giant shallow pan over a mud-walled fire, constantly moving it around with a long paddle. The heat and smoke is intense. She mixes flour with fermented root - everything ferments here within hours - and adds tapioca. The starch pops and forms a crust. We eat it as beiju, a sophisticated flatbread with a delicious gummy crunch. Dona Brasi loads up with farinha. The rest of the extended family will stay here for a few days until the fields are dug, the flour, tucupi and tapioca made.
"Thank God we have fish so we can eat chilli" - Baniwa saying.
Before we cross the river to the Baniwa village, I ask about ATÁ's work in the Rio Negro (ATÁ means fire in the Tupi language), helping to support a state-of-the-art chilli-processing house and promoting the product. "The Baniwa pepper is emblematic," Atala says, "not only as a flavour but as a culture. The way the women work the land is very specific and sustainable. It is used in initiations and is seen as a sacred plant."
At least it was before the Catholic missionaries and evangelists intervened. Some 90% of indigenous people here have taken on evangelical faith. Communal malocas (longhouses) are gone, replaced by squares of tiny houses surrounding a central church. "The missionaries took away our communities when they took away communal housing," Max, a leader from FOIRN (Federação das Organizações Indígenas do Rio Negro), later tells me. "We stopped being collective and became individuals. Sometimes I even have to buy fish from my brother."
There are, though, pockets of resistance. FOIRN has built a maloca in the centre of São Gabriel. "This is a symbol of how my grandfather lived, and his ancestors lived," says Max. "There is significance in every pillar, every root, every straw."
"For us at ATÁ," adds Atala, "we can be an important support, for local culture, for social benefits, for economic benefits, not only money. We don't change lives, we change communities." São Gabriel's ISA representative Renato Martelli Soares puts it this way. "The Baniwa have cultivated this pepper through centuries," he says. "It is high in diversity and quality. With this project, we focus on the relationship between man, food and fire, between humanity and its environment."
On our way to the Baniwa fields, there's a sound like a waterfall. Except it's not. It's a wall of rain hitting the forest canopy and heading our way fast. We are about to learn a savage lesson in how the rainforest gets its name. The Baniwa pick large leaves to use as umbrellas. In seconds, we cannot see the people in front of us but we march blindly on, crossing streams on slippery logs until our guide, too, accepts we are lost.
Later, soaked like Glastonbury refugees, we regroup in the village. Each family brings food to a communal meal according to their means. We share densely flavoured soups spiked with cubiu (wild tomato), tucupi and Baniwa chillies. We eat mysterious fish smoked over an open fire and drink many styles of chibé. There is an extraordinary diversity of taste and fermentation from something as simple as flour and water.
A few days later we return to São Paulo and I get to eat at DOM. All the raw flavours of the Amazon are on our menu, including Atala's signature filhote river fish with tucupi and tapioca, although here the broth is almost oriental in its richness and depth. The menu walks us through Brazil - flower ceviche with native honey, wild boar with manioc flour and, of course, gingery, lemon grassy ants, served with pineapple (recipe: "take 1 pineapple and 4 saúva ants; place a piece of pineapple on top of a serving dish and top with an ant. Serve immediately"). This is brilliant cooking from an imaginative chef, and I remember our talk by the Manaus waterfalls about memories being the difference between being good and being exceptional.
The next day, we meet for a final time to talk about Atala's ambitions for ATÁ. During the week we have been in the Amazon, street protests have gathered pace across Brazil with thousands confronting the police and challenging the government to spend more on social programmes (the day I had arrived in São Paulo, Atala had joined the march armed with a vial of vinegar as an antidote to tear gas). Riots in Rio are being shown on TV screens around the world.
"As Brazilians we grew up with the feeling that everything becomes worse," says Atala. "Then one day we started to believe in the future, that things are getting better. But there is still no health system, no education, people are so close to the rocks."
It is this idea that Brazilians no longer need to wait for a leader to tell them when to act that drives Atala's thinking. "Food is the crossroads between culture and nature," he says. "ATÁ is not an institute for chefs or for recipes or for food or for foodies. This is an institute for change. I really believe we can start to make things happen. I am famous in my little food world, one of the top 50 chefs, but I don't want to look back in 10 years and think that I didn't use my voice."
While he talks, I am reminded of my last day in the jungle, when we met FOIRN. Felipe, a young chef from Manaus, had been mapping Amazonian mushrooms for ATÁ and was showing the indigenous leaders his results. But why did you stop eating the fungi, he asked. "When I was five," an older man said quietly, "a missionary woman told me I was stupid, incapable of learning. She told me there was no nutrition in our food and I needed to eat white flour. I was unhappy, angry, but we gradually lost the memory of what was good."
History has proved the missionaries wrong. Now, thanks to Atala and others, Brazil's indigenous food is finally being celebrated around the country - and the world.
DOM: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients by Alex Atala (Phaidon, RRP £35). To order a copy for £28 with free UK p&p click here
The Guardian, 17/08/2013
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