Along the Içana River and its tributaries, the Baniwa people have been cultivating some 70 local varieties of five species of Capsicum peppers, which they turn into a spice blend called jiquitaia. Known throughout Brazil as Pimenta Baniwa, this spice blend received international attention when it was mentioned in the Alex Atala episode of the Netflix series Chef’s Table. Now it’s being sold in the U.S.
A company called Culinary Culture Connections, headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, is importing Baniwa Pepper for the U.S. market. Currently it’s sold through their online store, alongside chocolate bars made with wild cacao from the state of Amazonas, Brazil. Is Pimenta Baniwa the next merkén, the Mapuche ground spice blend from the cacho de cabra pepper? It sure seems like it could be.
As seen in the Chef’s Table episode, Baniwa women have been cultivating these peppers in their gardens using traditional, organic, and sustainable methods for centuries. Jiquitaia is a fundamental part of their culture and seeds are passed down through generations. The ancestral practice of making the spice blend has changed little: after harvesting the peppers, they are dried for approximately two days, then crushed. However, now, salt from the Maras salt pans in Peru’s Sacred Valley is added and the packing of the product has become modernized.
ISA, a Brazilian NGO that supports indigenous community-based initiatives throughout the Amazon and elsewhere in Brazil, has helped the Baniwa commercialize jiquitaia, helping build several processing centers, each of which are co-managed by a man and woman chosen by different Baniwa communities. They have modernized the process so that each jar is traceable to the batch and the date it was packed and the name of the women and community producing it. Each jar has an average of 12 varieties of chilies, from a universe of 74 varietals of peppers grown by the Baniwa women. In the end, approximately 27.78 percent of the retail price of Pimenta Baniwa ends up in the hands of then Baniwa women, who invest it in their community.
The organization Atala founded, the Instituto ATA, has also helped fund the initiative and sells the product around Brazil, including in São Paulo’s Mercado de Pinheiros. I picked up a couple of 35ml jars at the market space at Atala’s Dalva e Dito restaurant in Jardins the last time I was in São Paulo and have been sprinkling it on everything: eggs, meat, etc. Traditionally, it’s used on fish and game.
Header image of Baniwa chiles from Alto Rio Negro Indigenous Land, Içana River. Photo credit: Beto Ricardo/ISA.