Why you should care
Because traditional food doesn’t have to be a novelty.
Juan José Aniceto Cueva isn’t your typical master chef. When he attends international food conferences, he dons an Amazonian head band and a tooth necklace, and paints his face with intricate indigenous designs. His ingredients are also eye-catching: live worms, guayusa leaves and palmito.
But for Aniceto, there is nothing unusual or folclórico about this way of cooking. Indeed, the Ecuadorean chef, who has lived nine years in the Amazon rain forest, is on a mission to show that ancestral cuisine is not just a novelty. “We want to get rid of this connotation that Amazonian gastronomy is exotic, because it isn’t exotic. It is a way of life,” he explains during a recent sunny morning in Puyo, where, in celebration of the town’s foundation, marching bands play renditions of “Despacito” and Shuar warriors walk in file down the main avenue.
After studying gastronomy in Quito, Aniceto moved to the Amazonian town to open a restaurant, Ábaco, and a cooking school. But he noticed something disturbing: Customers didn’t want Amazon food. “To them, Amazonian ingredients are for indigenous people,” he says. In an effort to change this perception and educate Ecuadoreans and the world about Amazonian culture, Aniceto began the Cocinas Ancestrales de la Amazonia (Amazonian Ancestral Gastronomy) investigative project in 2011, which documents and scientifically studies the food of the Amazon. Together with his teammates, André Obiol and Juanka Castillo, the chef has traveled to more than 60 remote indigenous communities and identified 78 Amazonian ingredients.
While the idea of smoked worms may not appeal, one bite of these juicy, buttery gems will change your mind.
He’s also documented 50 ancestral recipes, like yuca soup, leaf-steamed tilapia and casave — traditional dishes prepared in his gastronomy school as they were 500 years ago, before the Spanish arrived. And there’s a host of vanguard dishes on offer as well, using Amazonian ingredients, including ice cream made from sacha inchi, a kind of tree nut; Amazonian river fish with puree from chontaduros, a palm fruit; and lemon-mandarin-spiced ceviche with white cacao and wildflowers.
When I see the sizzling fish, drizzled with thick, orange sauce and framed by delicate white-purple flowers, I can’t help but say “ooooh.” Then “aaaah,” and “ooooh” again. At one point, I literally clap my hands. That was before the first bite. As I taste the ridiculously pretty dishes, I again resort to nonsensical sounds and gestures. The mixture of hot, dissolve-in-your-mouth fish with heavy, but fruity, dressing is just dreamy.
But perhaps one of the most surprising dishes is smoked chontacuros. Curos, Aniceto explains, is the Kichwa word for worm, and chonta is the name of the tree where these worms live. While the idea of smoked worms may not appeal, one bite of these juicy, buttery gems will change your mind.
When Aniceto is not cooking, he’s on the road, promoting the unique dishes of the Amazon. At food conference Madrid Fusion last year, representing Ecuador, he smoked chonta worms in ancestral cooking stoves as palo santo burned — to a stunned audience. In August, he will prepare 14 dinners in China as part of the Yantai Ecuadorean food festival. His hope is that through the Amazonian Ancestral Gastronomy project, the world will learn that the Amazon is more than just flora and fauna –– it is a culture that needs to be respected and protected, to “be understood culturally, spiritually and with humility.”