By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions
The vast Amazon rainforest has inspired a cuisine pioneer in Brazil. Combining the sensual pleasures of fine dining and the joy of tasting new flavours with a pursuit of sustainable and profitable local farming, a chef is inventing a new Brazilian cuisine and showing the way to create sustainable incomes.
The kitchens of chef Alex Atala are as much a laboratory of food experimentation as a place to cook meals. He applies French and Italian cooking styles to traditional Brazilian dishes and ingredients. Since opening his restaurant D.O.M in 1999 in Sao Paulo, Atala has relentlessly pursued – through adventurous journeys around Brazil and into the Amazon rainforest – new flavours, foods and cuisines native to the country. When he started out, he was surprised to discover the lack of knowledge about native Brazilian ingredients, both within the country and outside. He has turned himself into a champion for local communities, helping them turn local foods into sources of income.
Brazil, home to the largest portion of the Amazon rainforest, is hoping to become the world’s biggest food producer – it is currently second after the United States – addressing a major global problem and providing income for Brazil’s farmers.
The challenge is to increase food production – providing income for Brazil’s farmers and helping address a major global problem – without destroying the Amazon’s complex ecosystem.
Amazonia, the region that takes in the mighty Amazon River and the vast Amazon rainforest, is home to the most diverse range of plant and animal species in the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazon_Rainforest).
Brazil is currently debating legislation to ease restrictions on how small farmers can use land in the Amazon rainforest. It would loosen regulations on farming near river banks and hilltops. Many working in Brazil’s agricultural industry believe the country is not living up to its potential. They say Brazil could surpass the United States as an agricultural producer if allowed to use all its arable land.
This is a crucial debate not only for the future of the environment, but also for humanity. World demand for food keeps rising as populations increase and living standards rise in many countries, such as China. Another trend at work is increasing global urbanization, where more people are leaving agriculture as a business to live in cities and peri-urban areas to pursue a better quality of life. These growing megacities will need vast amounts of food to feed their populations.
Brazil has, in recent years, increased the amount of territory designated as a protected area in the Amazon forest.
The National Institute for Space Research in Brazil (http://www.inpe.br/ingles/index.php) has satellite photographs showing deforestation in the Amazon at its slowest pace for two decades. But more recent reports show deforestation accelerating again in 2011.
Sao Paulo’s D.O.M. Restaurante (http://www.domrestaurante.com.br) – the name is an acronym for the Latin phrase “God, the best and greatest” – has used the rainforest’s rich harvest of foods to create an award-winning destination restaurant that prioritises sustainable sources. It was ranked seventh in this year’s S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
Atala says on his website he “is bringing a new sustainable Brazilian cuisine to the world’s attention.” His motto is “It is necessary to cook and eat as a citizen.”
The restaurant celebrates small-scale producers when sourcing food products (http://www.domrestaurante.com.br/#/en-us/menu/ingredientes). One pioneering food producer Atala works with is DRO Ervas e Flores (herbs and flowers) (http://www.droervaseflores.com). Located in the city of Cequilho, it grows edible herbs and flowers for restaurants. The flowers cultivated by DRO serve mainly to decorate plates, but can also be eaten. At the company farm, the flowers produced include violas, begonias, borago, monks cress, chrysanthemums, pumpkin flowers, coriander flowers, sweet alyssum, mini roses, basil flowers, roses, rockets and violets.
One notable success has been the Amazonian root priprioca. Once it was used only for cosmetics, but Atala has turned it into an essence for cooking. He has conducted original research into uses for the root, which is produced by small communities in the Amazon.
Other Brazilian foods he champions include black rice, an unusual variety sought after for its health benefits. It has 30 percent more fibre and 20 percent more protein than white rice, and less fat and calories than brown rice. The black rice used at D.O.M is produced in the Paraiba Valley in Sao Paulo state by Chicao Ruzene (http://www.arrozpreto.com.br), who researches new varieties on the rice farm.
Jambu, a herb from the Amazon, gives an electrical sensation when it is chewed. Tucupi, a yellowish liquid from pressed wild manioc tuber, is used to season typical Amazonian dishes made with fish, fowl and ducks.
Already well known in his native Brazil, Atala has become the country’s first internationally known celebrity chef and standard-bearer for the “New Brazilian Gastronomy.”
His origins are inspiring: a former DJ and punk, he sold his records and went on a trip backpacking in Europe when he was 18. He made a living as a painter and dishwasher until a friend convinced him to go to catering school. Upon graduation, he worked in some of the top restaurants in Italy and France. This apprenticeship left Atala skilled in the techniques of French cuisine – considered one of the most disciplined and methodical in the world – and he returned in 1994 to Brazil.
The restaurant has ultra-modern design and the sleek kitchen is home to a collection of Amazonian art. Atala acts as an ambassador for the country’s cuisine and flavours to the world. He opened a second restaurant in 2009, Dalva e Dito (http://www.dalvaedito.com.br), which celebrates home cooking by mothers and grandmothers and features only local produce.
Atala’s inclusion of ‘wild’ ingredients has inspired other chefs. His expeditions into the Amazon continue to discover and study the biodiversity of the rainforest and the culinary culture of its inhabitants.
His long-term agenda is to boost local farmers and food production and to increase the availability of ‘wild’ foods in the nation’s supermarkets. If he gets his way, people around the world will be eating the Brazilian way.
“French, Italian, Spanish and Japanese chefs, for example, have their own cuisine and give value to their terroir (local) produce,” Atala explained his passion to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. “We have to do the same in Brazil! Our ingredients are exotic now, but can become popular in the near future.”
Published: June 2011
1) Brazilian Exporters and Importers website. Website:http://www.brazilianexportersandimporters.com/index.aspx
2) Por uma Gastronomia Brasileira by Alex Atala – ISBN 8586518352 Website:http://www.submarino.com.br/produto/1/220365/por+uma+gastronomia+brasileira
3) Winner of a UN Habitat award, the Brazilian farmer’s cooperative Cooperhaf: Cooperativa de Habitacao dos Agricultores Familiares has put together what it calls a “social technology” combining housing and farm diversification to support family farmers. Website:http://www.cooperhaf.org.br
4) Eat Smart in Brazil: How to Decipher the Menu, Know the Market Foods and Embark on a Tasting Adventure by Joan Peterson, Publisher: Ginko Press. Website:http://www.ginkgopress.com/
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
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© David South Consulting 2023