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In Search of Local Identity, Latin Bartenders Tap the Amazon

Local ingredients aren't just for chefs

It doesn’t get more local than this. A chef or bartender steps from his/her restaurant or bar into the nearby Amazon rainforest in search of culinary inspiration via wild native ingredients. Perhaps influenced by pioneering forager and chef René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, in the last couple of years Latin America’s culinary elite have turned to their own backyard—a forest with more biodiversity than anywhere else in the world—to uncover rare, exotic, indigenous edibles to incorporate into food and, just recently, drink.

When Lima, Peru chef Virgilio Martinez of Centralnumber four on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list—launched a foraging program for his modern Peruvian restaurant two years ago, he was surprised with the amount of autochthonous products he found.

"The use of products of the territory in Central has been evolving, so our cocktail bar also assumed a special role," explains mananger Peter Law Yong, who also serves as coordinator of Central’s foraging expeditions. "Of course the challenge is huge, but we intended to include the fruits, herbs, and roots that we discovered, and use them in preparing our cocktails," he adds.

A map of the Amazon rainforest. [Map via Click Amazonia]

"Our goal with the expeditions is to try to find all possibilities that these special ingredients could have, whether in the kitchen or in the bar."

Martinez's expedition program, called Mater Iniciativa, is the first in the country, and built of 14 professionals—inclusive of chefs, an anthropologist, and a forest engineer—who seek to uncover new forest ingredients and educate cooks, but also the general public, about the products' culinary applications. During excursions, the group maps out different Peruvian regions in search of unsung ingredients like cacao blanco (white cocoa) and huampo tree bark. The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s richest, most biodiverse regions, spanning nearly 3.5 million miles, touching nine countries. According to the National Center of Research and Conservation from Amazon Biodiversity, more than 30,000 plant species inhabit the expanse.

Since founding Mater Iniciativa, the explorers have discovered countless new ingredients that end up behind Central's bar. During a recent trip, the foragers found hoja de coca (coca leaves), bijao (a bitter leaf used to wrap regionals foods like tamales, and one that also flavors cocktail bitters) and seeds such as annatto. They also brought back native Sanango and Tamamuria wood to infuse into locally distilled pisco, gin, and tequila. "Mater Iniciativa has been a great way for us to deepen the knowledge of our territory," says Young.

Central's uña de gato cocktail. [Photo courtesy of Central]

Right now on Central’s cocktail menu, one will find drinks (unnamed, though listed by ingredients) flavored with rum, pineapple, araçá (a tropical fruit similar to guava) and smoked uña de gato (cat's claw) bark—a wood prized for both its medicinal properties and smoky flavor. A separate libation combines pulpa de tumbo (Amazon banana passionfruit pulp), basil leaves, and pisco. "Our goal with the expeditions is to try to find all possibilities that these special ingredients could have, whether in the kitchen or in the bar," says Martinez.

Other local chefs and bartenders are using the forest as their grocery store, too. Since Brazil is home to 45 percent of the forestmore than any other country in the worldit’s the perfect turf for culinary heroes looking to add a unique, local twist to their menus.

In Belém, the capital of Pará, a whole state in northern Brazil located within the Amazon, the Castanho brothers of Remanso do Bosquenumber 34 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants listwanted to create an authentic identity for their cocktails, so they hit the forest for inspiration.

El Cielo's camu camu cocktail. [Photo courtesy of El Cielo]

With help from one of Brazil's top bartenders, Alex Mesquita of Rio de Janeiro’s Paris Bar, the group is testing the Amazon's bounty and applying practices like fermentation to create bespoke beverages. Together they designed a signature cocktail with a blend of cachaça and bourbon, dehydrated jambu flowers (an exotic native fruit that creates a pleasant tingling sensation on the tongue), and imbiriba, a native bitter wood. "We have always used these ingredients in our dishes, but we thought that it would be interesting to use them in our cocktails as well, creating a local identity and also a pairing for our meals," explains Felipe Castanho. Remanso do Bosque's new cocktail menu, which launches next month, specifically focuses on indigenous fruits and woods.

On the other side of the expansive Amazonian forest, chef Juan Manuel Barrientos of restaurant El Cielonumber 30 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list takes advantage of the Amazon’s Colombian side to harvest native products. One of the cocktails he and his mixology team developed involves foraged camu camu, a tiny acidic purple-yellow superfruit, along with sugarcane aguardente, lime, and a touch of liquid nitrogen. Meanwhile, Barrientos' version of a margarita incorporates aji ojo de pescado, a native Colombian forest chile.

Native Amazonian ingredients are also widely used at D.O.M., in São Paulonumber 9 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. Chef Alex Atala is responsible for many signature dishes using forest finds, like Amazonian ants served on a pineapple cube with pirarucu fish and tucuti (fermented cassava juice). So, naturally, his cocktail program follows suit.

D.O.M.'s priprioca martini. [Photo courtesy of D.O.M.]

D.O.M.’s current bar menu sports a martini made with lime and passionfruit juice, balm-aged cachaça, with priprioca (woody-flavored Amazonian root) essence sprayed on the glass for an aromatic punch. Another cocktail calls for unaged cachaça, plus Cointreau, mandarine sorbet, and jambu leaves.

Jean Ponce, D.O.M.'s former lead bartender, says that he became familiar with the Amazon’s native ingredients during his time at the restaurant: "Alex is obsessive about our 'misundestood' ingredients. I learned with him to look beyond their appearance and the first flavor. That’s how we manage to go further in our work." Now, Ponce is visiting and researching various Brazilian regions, mainly in the Amazon, in search of cocktail inspiration for his new unnamed bar opening this April, in São Paulo's Pinheiros neighborhood.

Ponce, who has spent ample time in the forest, says he is crazy about murupi, a hot pepper with an intense aroma, taperebá, a dark yellow fruit with a balanced sweet acidity, and is open to the possibilities of guaraná, one of the most known Amazon fruits. As Ponce sees it, "Here in Brazil, we are always complaining that we don’t have much access to all spirits and ingredients from abroad. So, I think we should take a look at the products that we have and other places don’t. We are just tapping into the forest resources."

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