Thiago Castanho’s Belém do Pará

This is Part VII 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.

There are a handful of chefs on the Latin America 50 Best Restaurant list that are experimenting with Amazonian ingredients in high cuisine ­– Alex Atala, Virgilio Martínez, Pedro Miguel Schiaffino – but only one chef on the list was actually born in the Amazon and has a restaurant located there. That’s Thiago Castanho of Remanso do Bosque in Belém do Pará, Brazil.

When Castanho was 12 his family was broke. His father loved to cook so he began selling food to neighbors. They would sell the pizza, then use the money to buy more ingredients. Soon there was a dining room in their house that could seat 15, called Remanso do Peixe. If Remanso do Peixe, which is still in operation, was in São Paulo, it would be talked about as much as Mocotó. It’s that good. It’s humbly set in a house in an out of the way neighborhood of Belém, just like Mocotó is in São Paulo. Just swap the ingredients of the northeast for those of the northern Amazon.

“I think our history is very similar to Rodrigo’s (Oliveira),” said Castanho. “The food is the same as in the beginning. When we thought of making changes we opened Remanso do Bosque.”

Remanso do Peixe is still on the same gated street and is unmarked. You wouldn’t notice it if you weren’t looking for it. It’s much bigger than it once was, however. It has taken over the entire house, with a capacity of 120.

“I like it here because people feel like they’re going to the house of a friend,” said Castanho, as we entered the restaurant. The bartender mixed us a caipirinha made with Cachaça do Jambu, which made my lips tingle. Jambu (Acmella oleracea), a flowering herb, is used in everything in Belém. The leaves and flowers make your mouth numb, though the green leafs lose their intensity when cooked and are used in the region’s most typical dishes. We eat simple, soulful food like Paraense-style Moqueca and pirarucu (paiche) cooked in coconut milk with a side of farofa. Much of it is cooked in clay pots and full of flavor. They use herbs from the forest and fish sourced from local fishermen. There’s no secret to it. They just know where everything comes from and serve it with love.

Castanho studied at a culinary school in Campos do Jordão, north of São Paulo, and could have easily moved there to work in top restaurants there. Yet, he decided to come back to the city of 2.2 million on the Amazon River. He identifies more as a person of the Amazon than of Brazil. Plus, Belém has a strong had a culinary identity of its own that he had spent a lifetime working in. There were chefs like Paulo Martíns who already proved that regional dishes like Pato no Tucupi deserved recognition. He knew the fishmongers at the Ver-O-Peso market. He lived through the explosive growth of açaí, a palm fruit that was long thought of as food for the poor. In the evenings, he knew what it felt like to wait in line at a street stall like Tacacá do Renato for hearty bowls of tacacá and vitapá. These soulful stews, both utilizing jambu and tucupi (a wild manioc broth), were devoured by the richest to the poorest citizens of Belém. Politicians posed with these dishes to win support. Food is the common cultural element that unites all of Belém.

Still, trying to expand the idea of regional cuisine is never easy. When Castanho and his family, including his younger brother Felipe, first opened Remanso do Bosque in 2011, it took some time for the local population to understand what they were trying to do. Diners wanted family-style dishes, like what they would find at Remanso do Peixe, when they first opened. Remanso do Bosque is more of an intellectual experience like you might find at D.O.M. There’s a forest seen through the glass windows that run around the dining room, not to mention graffiti on the walls and a collection of contemporary Amazonian art. Only a botanist can identify many of the ingredients, like a waxy potato I was served, which they can only get in the kitchen two months each year and was served with tucupi and nori. There’s milk made from Brazil nuts, strange fruits like bacuri (Platonia insignis), and cassava cakes with ají cumarí jelly. Belém is evoked again and again throughout the tasting menu, such as the cassava crackers that are served in the little thatched baskets you might find in markets, or the hollowed out cuia gourds used for tacacá in the street, which they might pour a cocktails in. You begin to understand just how much food is tied to the city’s culture as a whole. Gradually other chefs in Brazil began talking about what this chef in the “backwoods” was up to. The local began to understand too.

Felipe, who has been a pastry chef and sommelier at the restaurant, is now in charge of expanding their vision. They have expanded to include craft beer and artisan food products. Merceraia Remanso, which pops up at markets and events around town, sells their cupuaçu butter, mango IPAs, native honeys, bottled negronis infused with imbiraba, Combu island chocolate farofa, and cheiro chiles in vinegar. Remanso has become a brand promoting the culinary diversity of Belém.

“Here there are only two seasons: when it rains every day and when it rains all day,” Castanho told me the day before. We were in a season of everyday rain, when, like clockwork, it would begin to fall at 3pm. In Belém it’s customary to make plans for before and after the rain, so the next morning Castanho and I get on a boat and cross the Amazon River to Ilha do Combu, one of 39 islands in the municipality of Belém. We can still see the steel towers of the city behind us as the boat enters a narrow river with jungle on both sides. It was a 20-minue ride but it feels as if are hours from any city. We pull up to a wooden dock with stairs leading up to a small house.

Inside the house we meet Dona Nena, who Castanho has been buying chocolate with for years. A few years earlier he met her. Her father, who died there of a snake bite, taught her. She helped him plant, harvest, and process cacao all of her life before he passed away. His father taught him. She’s the only one making chocolate on Combu, not just selling the beans. Her chocolate is rustic and gritty. It’s totally raw, made by grinding the beans and then hand molding it. The wrapper is a banana leaf. She also makes brigadeiros, Cupuaçu jam, and a cacao liquor made from extracting liquid from the beans by placing them in a woven tipiti that’s normally used for processing manioc. She processes about 50 kilos each month, selling to top restaurants in Belém and several organic markets under the label Combu Organico. Everything she makes Castanho now sells at Mercearia Remanso.

Like Elia García de Reátegui of La Patarashca in Tarapoto, Peru and Felipe Schaedler of Banzeiro in Manaus, Castanho’s experiment in building a local network entirely of small Amazonian producers is helping give value to local biodiversity. It’s supporting keeping more of the ecosystem intact than any single product for export can. It creates a local demand for products of high quality from the state of Pará, like Combu Island cacao, Marajó bufala cheese, and various fruits and chiles. When diners see these ingredients being written about in the New York Times and Remanso do Bosque appearing on Best Of lists, they began to realize what they have. Things they may have forgotten or simply overlooked. They then order the ingredients at local at other restaurants and cook them at home. While this may seem like typical farm to table ethos that are found everywhere in the world, in the developing world, particularly in a vulnerable environment, as cheap Chinese products are increasingly entering markets and disrupting local supply chains, it means everything.

Before leaving Belém I went with the brothers Castanho to the town of Sao Caetano de Odivelas, 100 kilometers east of Belém. There are mangroves where herons and the cherry red scarlet ibis are flying about. It’s not far from where the forest meets the ocean.

“People think the Amazon is only river, but this is the Amazon too.”

For the first time, a native Amazonian oyster is being harvest here. A small cooperative of 15 families called ASSOPEF are trying to harvest them sustainably. Before they would just catch anything, whether it was crabs or fish. Now they’re concentrating on long term growth. We get in a wooden boat and paddle out in the river to where the oysters are growing. We crack a few of them open. They aren’t overly briny. They’re a little bit sweet, yet they’re big and meaty.

There’s not a custom of eating oysters in the Amazon, so it’s a challenge. On the beach they’re easy to sell, but in Belém no one knows what to do with them. Remanso do Bosque and a sushi bar in Belém are the first clients. For the project to work they have to find a way to make them familiar enough to the casual diner. They started serving them on Fridays at Remanso do Bosque, just straight on ice, grilled, or fried. On the tasting menu they grill them and serve them with tucupi and jambu, just like a bowl of tacacá.