Motacú, a Keystone Palm in the Bolivian Amazon With Culinary Potential : New Worlder

In our latest column in partnership with the WCS, Dr. Julie Kunen and Dr. Rob Wallace travel through Bolivia on Expedición Sabores Silvestres – exploring indigenous gastronomy and its links to environmental conservation.

Arriving in Bolivian Amazon’s Lecos indigenous village of Santo Domingo, we were greeted with joyful song and dance. A teacher and his students, dressed partly in western clothes, partly in traditional ceremonial garb – palm frond skirts, feathered crowns, belts, tunics, and anklets, carrying bows and arrows – danced to the accompaniment of music by men playing flutes, drums, and other percussion instruments, as they led the members of our expedition into the village. A group of wildlife conservationists, chefs, and journalists, we were five days into an eight-day, 1400-kilometer-long expedition — Expedición Sabores Silvestres — into indigenous gastronomy and its links to environmental conservation. Over the course of the week, we would visit eight communities – all within or in the buffer zones of Apolobamba National Park and Madidi National Park – and eat, drink, dance, eat some more, dance some more and, in the process, learn more about Bolivia’s impressively diverse range of ecosystems, foods, and cultures.

Our organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is committed to conserving wildlife and wild places. And Bolivia is a world-class focus of this work, as our recent research in Madidi has confirmed. As Latin America urbanizes (the continent has among the highest rates of urbanization in the world, surpassing 80%), it has become clear that engaging city dwellers in efforts to conserve natural resources and wilderness is critical. What better way to do so than through the deliciousness of sustainably produced or collected food on the plate, ready to be shared with family and friends?

In these efforts, we are joined by the visionary restaurant Gustu, a La Paz star recognized in the world, not only for its culinary excellence, but for its total commitment to sourcing 100% Bolivian ingredients for its dishes. Gustu’s head chef, Marsia Taha, and two of her sous chefs were our co-conspirators on this expedition, whose goal was two-fold. First, to celebrate Bolivia’s rich cultural and natural heritage by interacting with it through the lens of food; and second, to discover little-known ingredients with potential for commercialization by businesses such as Gustu. Crucially, these types of supply chains offer rural communities the possibility of an income that supports their efforts to sustainably manage the forests and waters for which they are responsible, and avoid getting sucked into growing economies around illegal gold mining or commercial coca cultivation. In and around protected areas, their contribution to conservation is essential and should be celebrated.

The next day, another Lecos indigenous community, Irimo, put on a splendid food fair for us. There were two rows of tables laden with raw ingredients and prepared dishes alike, manned by men and women eager to have us taste each dish, as well as describe the process of preparing it. For example, one of our favorite dishes presented small catfish, fished that morning from the little river below the village, packed into a bamboo tube with a bit of water, onion, and salt, capped with a handful of banana leaves and placed directly in a wood fire to steam for a few minutes. Uncorked, the bamboo tube was tipped into a bowl, and out slipped a delicately poached fish in a light broth.

But the culinary highlight of Irimo is the motacú palm. Motacú or the urucuri palm (Attalea phalerata) is an essential building block not only of the Lecos’ diet, but also of the ecology of the neighboring forest and indeed much of the southwestern Amazon in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru. Motacú is an abundant species of palm with population densities reaching almost 50 individuals per hectare in concentrated patches or “motacusales.” Motacú fruiting cycles are somewhat asynchronous and so fruit can be available year-round in a forest. The fruits form part of the diet of a veritable who’s who of the Amazons frugivorous or fruit eating wildlife community, including lowland tapir, white-lipped peccary and collared peccaries, agouti and paca, squirrels, and spider and capuchin monkeys. Indeed, motacú is widely considered an ecological keystone species for Amazonian wildlife, as it is relatively more important than other fruits providing a protein-rich and nutritious food during times of relative fruit scarcity in the forest, particularly at the height of the dry season.

And motacú in some form is served by the Irimo community, at our count, in over a dozen different preparations. Perhaps the very definition of a super food, it is the tofu of the forest, transformed by the type of cooking preparation and by the flavors of other ingredients that accompany it in dishes. Not only that, but it turns out that nutritional analyses for motacú and other palm fruits have demonstrated that they present relatively high protein, fiber and unsaturated fat levels, as well as a host of crucial minerals for human health.

First, and most spectacularly, are the three species of beetle larvae that burrow into the palm tree itself, and are then extracted by village residents and eaten as a wonderful source of fat and protein. Tuyu tuyu come in two sizes but both are relatively large, juicy snout beetle larvae that infest the fronds at the heart of a motacú palm tree, while iwi are smaller bruchid beetle (Pachymerus spp.) larvae found burrowing inside the palm kernel inside the palm fruit. They both can be eaten raw or cooked, usually fried in their own fat and mixed with rice. The oil the larvae give off is said to help cure coughs.

A simple, fresh dish is made of heart of motacú palm, shaved from the inner stalks of palm fronds and eaten either raw as a sort of slaw or cooked as a vegetable. Motacú palm fruit, looking like miniature coconuts, is also eaten raw or pulped to form the refreshing beverage called chicha.

Motacú chocolate and coffee are two other beverage derivatives. For the first, the flesh of the palm fruits is grated, dried, and toasted, then mixed with hot water or milk for a hot chocolate-like beverage. Motacú coffee is a similar preparation, but made from the ground and dried palm kernel, or almendra. When toasted and boiled with water it forms a drink like coffee.

In delicious pan de motacú or motacú bread, palm fruits are grated and the fresh fruit pulp is mixed with sugarcane juice and cornmeal ground on a handheld batán or grinding stone and baked into a flatbread with a pleasingly gritty texture.

The oil-rich palm kernel has other uses. It can be ground, toasted, and boiled to extract oil that has medicinal, cosmetic, and cooking applications for home use and local sales. The whole palm nut can also be eaten like an almond or pressed raw to extract a nut milk.

Beyond human consumption, motacú palms provide in many other ways. Its leaves are used to thatch roofs and the dried palm fronds and fruit husks are also used for kindling. The palm flower when dried makes a useful broom for sweeping out houses. The skins of the fruit and residue from pressing, pulping or grinding the palm fruits and nuts are fed to domestic pigs.

That a single palm tree can provide such a diversity of delicious and nutritious food, as well as nourishing the forest ecosystems of the southwestern Amazon, is a testament to biocultural richness of this corner of La Paz Department and the culinary creativity of its residents. Gustu has presented a new 20 course tasting menu, with over half the dishes featuring ingredients from the Expedición Sabores Silvestres, including two featuring the tuyu tuyu beetle larvae. Introducing even a few motacú-based dishes to a wider audience of urban Bolivians will help to showcase this diversity and expand the circle of those who value and support the conservation of the unique cultural and natural heritage.

Header image of motacú fruits credit Omar Torrico.