This is Part II of New Worlder’s first series: Food & The Amazon Rainforest, which explores the relationships and possibilities surrounding food in one of the most diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth.
In the Bora village of Pucaurquillo, on the Ampiyacu River not far from where it flows into the Amazon, several women are cutting the thick waxy skin off of the white tuber known as yuca (manioc/cassava) with a machete. This is the start of the long, labor-intensive process of making ají negro, a fermented yuca sauce whose recipe has been passed down from generation to generation among the indigenous people of northwest Amazonia.
They are peeling yuca brava (Manihot esculenta), the poisonous form of manioc with green leaves, which cannot be eaten like yuca with purple leaves. Even the animals won’t eat it. To remove the cyanide from yuca brava, it needs to undergo a process of transformation. After washing and peeling it, the women of Pucaurquillo soak the yuca in water for several days. The pulp is then pressed through a thatched sieve, though in other indigenous villages it’s twisted and squeezed inside of a hanging woven cylinder, sometimes called a matafrío. The leftover pulp is used to make cassava bread, while the resulting extract is left for several hours until the starch separates and is removed. In Pucaurquillo, the broth is then reduced for about eight hours and then left for several days to thicken. All sorts of other ingredients are added to give it flavor. Here they add in chile peppers and ants. In other places it might be flowers, macambo seeds (Theobroma bicolour), vegetables, fish, or meat. When the concoction bubbles, meaning there’s fermentation, that means it is ready. The resulting sauce is complex, spicy, funky, and full of umami. It’s like an Amazonian mole.
Among different villages the flavor, color, and consistency of ají negro varies. Some prefer it more sweet or clearer. Others like it strong and pungent. Some prefer it thick like a paste, yet others make it thin and watery. While ají negro has become the dominant Spanish language term that the scientific and culinary community call it by, it also goes by dozens of others like Ommaï, Kígai, Ualako. Some just call it tucupi. It’s not just a Bora recipe, the Huitito, Yucuna, Muinane, and many other groups all have their own recipes for ají negro, but everywhere these ancestral recipes are being lost. Within a generation or two the knowledge of making ají negro could very well disappear.
To understand food in the Amazon, understanding why fermentation is so prevalent is essential. Many imagine the jungle as a paradise full of exotic fruits falling off trees everywhere you look and fish that jump into your hands. It certainly can be a place of abundance, though more often it is a place where the availability of food is severely limited. Many fruits can only be found for days or weeks each year. Hunting and fishing takes time and luck. Being a tropical climate, whatever food is found tends to spoil quickly. The Amazon is a harsh and unforgiving place. You make the most of any food source available, which is why the poisonous yuca brava, mentioned above, is still considered. More than anything fermentation is a form of preservation, though it may also be used for added flavor and to make alcohol.
Tucupi, an acidic yellow broth made from the extract of grated yuca that has been boiled and left to ferment, is used in the Amazon like other cultures might pickle an ingredient in vinegar. Many cultures will cook animal proteins in tucupi to preserve it longer, though it is also used in many famous Brazilian recipes, such as pato no tucupi and tacacá, which both cooking it with the mouth numbing herb jambú (Acmella oleracea).
Throughout the Amazon there’s a fermented beverage called masato, sometimes called cauim in parts of Brazil, which is also made from yuca. After the tuber is peeled and boiled, the yuca is chewed and spit into a vat where it sits for days. The enzymes in human saliva break down the starch and turn it into fermentable sugars. This is a practice that has gone on for thousands of years. It’s an early form of beer.
Masato has a fermented funk to it, though it can also be quite pleasant. Fruits are often added for more flavor. It’s usually low in alcohol, which is why copious amounts are often drank at festivals. Yet masato isn’t necessarily created for the buzz. It’s used for sustenance. Masato often supplements the daily diet. It provides carbohydrates and is often safer to drink than water.
There’s also memepa, a juice obtained from the palm fruit pijuayo (Bactris gasipaes), also called pupunha or chontadura elsewhere in the region. There’s copuazu, another type of theobroma, whose pods are fermented and toasted to create a strange beverage. Of course we cannot forget cacao, the world famous fruit whose seeds are left to ferment and then processed to make cacao.
We have only begun to understand how significant fermentation is to indigenous life in the Amazon. In 2011, a group of scientists traveled to a remote part of Venezuela and found a group of Yanomami hunter gatherers harboring a microbiome with the highest diversity of bacteria and genetic functions ever reported in any human group. While many Westerners have had the diversity of bacteria in their gut depleted by antibiotics, leaving them with a desert inside, the gut microbes inside the Yanomami are as diverse as the flora and fauna around them. The amounts of gut microbes do not give an ideal picture of total health by any means – for instance, even these Yanomomi have life spans much shorter than Westerners because of a variety of other ailments. Yet maybe these gut microbes, many of them certainly originating from the many fermented foods eaten in the region, be the key to living in this wild terrain? If these recipes disappear we will never know.
“(Ají negro) is a fundamental technique of food preservation, but also an inexhaustible source for the development of flavors and maintenance of the health of the community by creating a population of beneficial microorganisms within the individuals,” says Colombian chef and agronomist Eduardo Martínez. “As Amazonian grandmothers say ‘women heal with food’ and fermentation is one of the tools of health care.”
At his restaurants Mini-Mal and El Panoptíco in Bogotá, Martínez has used ají negro both directly or in the preparation of sauces, broths, and other dishes, both salty and sweet. He says it does a tremendous job both complementing and accentuating the flavors of smoked dishes, though it also goes well with bitter chocolate.
“My reaction was an absolute surprise when I saw it and tried it for the first time,” says Martínez. “A surprise that has not diminished even today. Ají negro is the ingredient that, in terms of taste complexity and simplicity, has surprised me the most in my life. My appreciation for this ingredient and everything that surrounds it culturally and gastronomically only grows as I know learn more of the details of its history, its preparation, and its territory.”
Ají negro is finding an audience elsewhere in the region too. In Quito, Zorim Wong of La Locanda uses it as a glaze with tuna. Other chefs in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, and Colombia are also experimenting with it. There’s enormous potential for artisanal producers in each country as more chefs, and eventually home cooks, discover ají negro.
A few years ago the people of Pucaurquillo thought tourism could become improve their economy. They made handicrafts and prepared a dance in their maloka, a traditional longhouse. But tourists never came. The boats that plied the Amazon didn’t make the turn up the Ampiyacu and the village was too far from any jungle lodges to attract day trippers.
Before chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino arrived, ají negro didn’t have any commercial value. It was an ancestral product that they made themselves but never left the village. In Iquitos, the largest city in Peru’s northern Amazon, ají negro doesn’t exist. You won’t find it at restaurants or being used in family homes. In Pucaurquillo, ají negro is eaten regularly with cassava bread, or it’s used as a sauce or marinade with fish and proteins. They never though it could be anything more than that.
“It caught my attention that it (yuca brava) is poisonous and can take your life, yet it’s the livelihood of these communities and a principle food,” Schiaffino said. “In theory, yuca does not have much nutritional value. Yet in practice communities that eat yuca are almost always well nourished. More research needs to be done.”
Schiaffino began applying the sauce to high cuisine at his restaurants, Amaz and Malabar, as well as his catering company and the MV Aria, a luxury Amazon river cruise ship he runs the kitchen of. He uses it like a table spice or a hot sauce, as well as in sauces, stews with fish or meat, to marinate proteins, and in saltados (stir-frys).
“As for flavor I found it unique and very interesting,” said Schiaffino. I automatically associated it with some ingredient I already knew. Miso, vegemite, or A1 sauce. It has a lot of umami. It’s a great flavor enhancer.”
Schiaffino has created a partnership with 14 families in the village and now buys 30,000 soles (about $10,000) of ají negro each month. The entire economy of Pucaurquillo has been changed and by an obscure ancestral recipe that was believed to have no commercial value. The very idea of ají negro – turning something poisonous and transforming it into something that sustains life – is ingrained into the mythology of many Amazonian cultures, adhering to a notion of balance within the environment. It’s fitting that this fermentation is what will be the thing that preserves their culture.