Ant-Hunting in the Amazon for the World's Best Chefs
A journey into the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, in search of the ants from Alex Atala’s most famous dish.
After two days of traveling, I reach São Paulo with my precious cargo.
"Finally! We have been without ants for a week now," Alex Atala says as I arrive with a fresh shipment of saúva ants from São Gabriel da Cachoeira, located in the upper part of the Amazon Basin near the border of Venezuela and Columbia. "It was our worst week ever," adds his assistant, Andrea Campos.
Atala is Brazil's most celebrated chef, a popular hero on par with soccer legend Pelé, and the godfather of bossa nova, Tom Jobim. His restaurant D.O.M. is currently listed as number nine on Restaurant Magazine's list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants, renowned for its innovative use of indigenous Brazilian ingredients.
And the most famous dish? Well, it is not really a dish, but a precious commodity: saúva ants picked by the legendary Baré Indian, Doña Brazi. Atala often serves them with a small piece of pineapple, or might sprinkle them on top of a meringue. It sounds a bit like a provocation from a rock star chef, something to post on Instagram, but not something to actually enjoy. At least that is the impression you are left with if you taste ants on a number of restaurant menus around the world.
Suddenly, many chefs have taken a keen interest in these six-legged bugs. What gives?
The saúva ants that Atala serves belong to the rare group of insects that are eaten for culinary purposes because they taste so damn good. And their importance far exceeds their flavor: They have become the symbol of a South American culinary renaissance and are part of the gastronomic treasure chest from the world's largest rainforest.
"We are just scraping the surface," Atala says.
"Right now, we only have knowledge of a small fraction of the stuff that can be found in the Amazonian rainforest. No one knows what is still left out there."
I wanted to experience the ants firsthand, so I set out on a trip to São Gabriel da Cachoeira, home to Doña Brazi, the continent's most important purveyor of fine Amazonian insects.
Before Doña Brazi, few people had brought food from the rainforest into urban communities. The other cooks and food vendors in São Gabriel da Cachoeira sold what Brazi refers to as "white food": chicken, hamburgers, deep-fried fish, and fries. But despite the fact that more than 90 percent of the area's population is indigenous, her advancement of local food was considered controversial. She was once asked by the mayor to get out of the market and head back into the forest.
Doña Brazi lights a cigarette and leaves it dangling from the side of her mouth. In one hand is her machete; in the other, a small, elegant handbag.
"And now, I am famous. Everybody talks about Doña Brazi and her fabulous food. They come from all over Brazil, and all over the world."
I am walking through the rainforest, struggling to keep up with her. Here in the heart of the Amazon is one of the few places where the world dances to a different rhythm. Just a few miles outside Sao Gabriel, life is dramatically different for the more than sixty uncontacted tribes in the area.
My palate is utterly confused after days with food that resembles nothing I've ever known: the dull, mealy, but oddly satisfying flavor of pupunha, or palm-peach; unsweetened drinks made from the super-food açai; odd-looking river fish prepared with no salt but a blast of wild chile peppers instead. These are the kind that set your mouth on fire and peel the skin off your tongue, not unlike getting a rough beating from a dirty fishmonger.
It is said that more than 70 percent of the animal biomass in the Amazon basin is ants alone. But not all ants are created equal. Sure, there are other edible ants, like the mild, crunchy maniwara, but the real delicacy is the saúva.
One could argue that Atala and Brazi owe much of their stature today to meeting each other through a mutual friend, anthropologist Beto Ricardo from Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO that works with the rights of indigenous peoples. Atala was early in seeking out Amazonian products, but it was initially hard for him to navigate how to interact with the people of the rainforest without disrupting their way of life.
"I knew that I had to understand the rainforest, not just harvest and exploit it like so many outsiders before me."
In Doña Brazi, he found a teacher, and also someone he could mentor into a defender of indigenous culture; a fierce businesswoman with an iron will. He wrote the foreword to Brazi's book on indigenous Amazonian food, and brought her to São Paulo as a star. Brazi is content with her newfound fame, but also unfazed by it. She's equally comfortable in the forest and in the limelight.
Atala still remembers the first time she served the sauva ants.
"I had no idea what I was tasting. But it was amazing. And I asked Doña Brazi what spices she used. And she just answered that it was ants. 'No', I said, 'what spices?' 'Nothing, just ants.' Finally, she must have thought that I was a bit dull, so she went and fetched a small jar with sauva ants. And they exploded in my mouth! Like ginger and lemongrass, very aromatic and fresh tasting. That was the flavor I needed."
Doña Brazi has suddenly stopped in an unpromising patch of the forest. She points at some stripes in the muddy soil, takes a deep draw from her cigarette, and blows into a small hole in the ground.
"It used to be enough with village tobacco. Now they want filter cigarettes."
A couple of ants crawl out.
She directs her nephew to pick some sticks and proceeds to drill small holes in the ground. After a few seconds in the ground she pulls the sticks out: They are covered with furious ants. She brushes them off into a bucket. After a few minutes, the bucket is full.
"Are you not tasting?" she asks, both demanding and incredulous at the same time.
Who wouldn't want to taste such a delicacy?
Normally, I prefer my food to be dead, and certainly not angrily waving its feet, brandishing its strong leaf-cutting jaws. But for this, I will make an exception.
The first one catches my tongue, leading to explosion of pain. I spit it out.
I win a more lopsided victory over the next ant, crushing it between my teeth before it has time to attack. I feel it immediately: the explosion of flavor. Lemongrass and ginger? Maybe. Or like biting into a small piece of lime with some of the peel left on. Or simply what ants were supposed to taste like: the crawling, hard-working, delicious flavors of the future of South American cuisine.
"It doesn't get better than this," Doña Brazi says.
She lights another cigarette and helps herself to a small handful of saúva ants.
"Alex will be very happy with our catch today."