Restaurants of the Year: ámaZ, Banzeiro, and Mini-mal

As the world watched the Amazon burn, not to mention face a myriad of other atrocities, a movement around Amazonian food that extends beyond the region is beginning to take shape. We have made the case that food can be a part of the solution in preserving the Amazon Rainforest. Peru’s ámaZ, Brazil’s Banzeiro, and Colombia’s Mini-mal are helping achieve that goal. They are our restaurants of the year.

By working with and empowering indigenous producers throughout the Amazon, these three restaurants are inspiring a larger movement throughout the region. While they aren’t the only places serving sustainably sourced Amazonian ingredients, they deserve special attention because of where they are and who they are serving to. Despite what one may think of cities like Lima, São Paulo, and Bogotá, the average resident has never been to the Amazon and has never been enchanted with its diversity of flavors. To them, foods like patarashca, fish steamed in a banana leaf, or a bowl of tacacá, a hot broth of yuca extract with dried shrimp and mouth tingling jambu, are as familiar as a qurutob from Tajikistan. The richness and vulnerabilities of the world’s most important rainforest seems distant to many of these cities’ inhabitants. However, when tasted, giant freshwater snails or fragrant puxuri seeds can connect concrete jungles with real ones. Suddenly, those burning trees and land grabs might not be as far away as they seem.

Additionally, ámaZ, Banzeiro, and Mini-mal are not fine dining restaurants using select ingredients from the Amazon in pricey tasting menus that few can afford. That’s not to say that they don’t use the best ingredients they can; they do. Nor are we suggesting that they are the cheapest restaurants around; they aren’t. Yet, they are relatively accessible, serving thousands of people per week. Thousands. They are proving that, when faced with a choice, maybe, just maybe, the average urban diner might not go for the cheap beef that is helping tear down the forest, but for the wondrous flavors that help keep it in the ground.

ámaZ – Lima, Peru

Pedro Miguel Schiaffino opened ámaZ in the Lima neighborhood of Miraflores in 2012, followed by a second location in suburban Surco in 2017. Neither are Schiaffino’s first foray in Amazonian food. His fine dining restaurant Malabar has been experimenting with Amazonian ingredients since opening in 2004, and he’s been in charge of the menu aboard Aqua Expeditions river cruises in the Amazon for more than a decade. With those projects he has created awareness for Amazonian ingredients on an international level, but with ámaZ he has turned that power directly into sustainable development. Further, his NGO Despensa Amazonica, has changed the economies of a string of Bora/Huitito communities on the Río Ampiyacu by helping them develop their ancestral recipe tucupí negro for wider use, including a month-long awareness campaign that included 20 of Lima’s top restaurants. He has lead the fight for sustainable fishing of paiche, resurrected indigenous cooking methods, and worked with countless NGOs to develop and source ingredients that can help support Peru’s highly susceptible national park systems.

Banzeiro – São Paulo, Brazil

Born in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, Felipe Schaedler has been living and working in Manaus for more than a decade, having become obsessed with the cuisine of the region. He opened Banzeiro in 2009, followed by a food stall in a posh mall called Caboquinho in 2012, live fire focused Moquém do Banzeiro in 2017, and, perhaps most importantly, a São Paulo branch of Banzeiro in 2019. These restaurants continue to expand the notion of what Amazonian food in Brazil can be. However, some of his most important work has been going on quietly behind the scenes, often working alongside NGOs, ethnobotanists, and mycologists, to support what have become some of the most spectacular ingredients in Amazonian gastronomy in Brazil, including the pepper blend jiquitaia of the Baniwa people, which is now worth more than the gold polluting Amazonian waterways, as well as Saúva ants in the Upper Rio Negro and the mushrooms of the Yanomami in the Roraima state.

Mini-mal – Bogotá, Colombia

When Mini-mal opened in 2001, serving food that celebrated Colombia’s astounding biodiversity and working with rural communities in the Amazon and Pacific Coast, many of the top restaurants in Bogotá were serving Chilean salmon. They have not backed down. Agronomist turned chef Eduardo Martinéz and artist turned cook and pastry chef Antonuela Ariza have had tucupí negro on their menu since 2005, sourcing directly from indigenous grandmothers near Leticia. Martinéz has opened restaurants like the now closed Panóptico in the Museo Nacional and a restaurant in the non-profit Fundación Escuela Taller, while working to resurrect Colombia’s culinary heritage, much of it lost through war and time, and the food systems that surround them. Ariza has developed a line of artisan ice creams and a shop, Selva Nevada, using fruits like arazá and camu camu sourced from sustainable cooperatives aligned with reforestation efforts.

Header image of a Amazonian river sardine at Banzeiro by Rubens Kato.