The Obscure Sauce That Is Changing Indigenous Economies in the Amazon

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In the Amazon Basin, an ancestral sauce made from the fermented extract of yuca, something once believed to have no monetary value, is changing indigenous economies.

Called a handful of names from tucupí preto and ají negro to casaramá and ualako, indigenous communities around the region pass down recipes from generation to generation.

To make it, yuca brava (Manihot esculenta), the poisonous form of yuca or manioc, is peeled and soaked in water for several days. After the juice separates from the starch, which gets used in bread, and boiled, it becomes tucupí, a sour yellow juice used in traditional dishes like tacacá and pato no tucupí (boiled duck with tucupí) in the Brazilian state of Pará. When it is further reduced it becomes tucupí negro, which was mostly unknown outside of indigenous communities until a few years ago.

Making tucupí negro is a labor-intensive process and every community makes it a little bit differently. Some add peppers, seeds, or insects for flavor. Some variations are thin like a broth, while others reduce it to become more like a paste.

Traditionally, tucupi is used as a seasoning in stews and as a marinade for meats and fish, as well as a dip for cassava bread, though creative chefs in urban areas of South America are using it to inject their dishes with a shot of umami, creating a sudden demand that shows no signs of slowing.

In Lima, Peru, mó.bistró’s Matías Cillóniz adds it to a sauce with salted pork to slather over razor clams. In Roraima, Brazil, Makun’s Beto Bellini, sourcing from a Wapixana community, adds it to mushroom consommé and wild boar fillet. Doña Brazi, a legendary cook in Brazil’s Upper Rio Negro region mixes it with sauvà ants, which add a lemongrass-like flavor.

At his Bogotá restaurant El Chato, Alvaro Clavijo infuses tucupí negro in a pil pil style sauce and uses it in a broth with orellanas (oyster mushrooms).

“It’s a flavor that everyone likes but they can’t quite identify,” said Clavijo. “Because of the fermentation process, it can be both acidic and bitter at the same time.”

He was introduced to it by Eduardo Martínez, an agronomist turned chef who was first used it in a ceviche at Mini-Mal in 2005. Now tucupí is used in four different plates on Martínez’s menu.

“For me it’s our best and most interesting ingredient,” said Martínez, who sources from several communities in southern Colombia. “With yuca being such a neutral ingredient, it’s a wonder that these grandmothers can develop such flavor with so many nuances and such complexity.”

For indigenous communities in the Amazon Basin, jobs are difficult to come by. Sustainable, non-timber forest products present an opportunity to resist pressure from destructive activities like logging, mining, and oil exploration. While still minor, the growing demand of tucupí negro is having an impact for the communities producing it.

While a semi-industrial version of tucupí negro from Belem de Pará, Brazil is now being sold online in the U.S., the more flavorful, artisan varieties are primarily being sourced directly between chefs and indigenous communities.

In Peru, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino has been working for several years with the Bora-Huitito village of Pucaurquillo outside of Iquitos to source tucupí negro for his three restaurants in Lima (Malabar and two branches of ámaZ) and Aqua Expeditions river cruises. What began as an off chance sample quickly developed into a partnership with the community that has helped change their economy.

Through Schiaffino’s NGO, Despensa Amazónica, training and logistical support has been provided in order to develop a standardized product that preserves the artisan nature of the recipe. Sold in stylish 200-milliliter black bottles, it could be mistaken for upmarket balsamic vinegar if it weren’t for the indigenous patterns that decorate it. It’s sold in two versions: Original and Picante.

To scale up production, it has expanded into neighboring communities on the Río Ampiyacu and now employs a total of 24 women; they are earning twice as much per volume as they were before. It’s being sold to Lima’s best restaurants, like Mitsuharu Tsumura’s Maido and Virgilio Martinez’s Central, and to the public through a few gourmet stores around the city for around 40 soles, or $12 per bottle.

With a new mechanized yuca grater, using a pequi pequi canoe motor, they have cut down a process that once took three hours to 20 minutes and production has been ramped up from 1,000 liters per month in 2018 to 2,000 liters per month in 2019, according to Jacob Olander, of the Canopy Bridge NGO. Right now, it’s a balancing act between having enough supply to fulfill demand, but not expanding so quickly that the product loses its essence.

“It’s still a very niche product, so there has been a pivot from retail sales to just getting more people in the culinary community familiar with it,” said Olander, whose NGO Canopy Bridge helps connect buyers with tucupi negro, as well as other sustainable indigenous products. “Chefs love putting it on their menus,” he said, “and it has a dreamy story.”