Arts, Culture & Media

Brazilian chef makes authentic Amazon food more accessible

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DOM Chef Alex Atala serves white fish in bouillon surrounded by flowers from the Amazon. (Photo by Alex Schmidt.)

Beneath the high ceilings of DOM restaurant in Sao Paulo, a waiter approaches the white linen table.

He's bringing the fifth of a 16-course tasting menu. On the plate sit two glistening oysters, each one in its own shell shaped bowl and covered in colorful trimmings.

“Now, we have two kinds of oyster,” says DOM chef Alex Atala. “Here, the first one is a fresh oyster with copoacu. It’s a fruit from Amazonia with mango. The second one is a grilled oyster with marinated tapioca and salmon eggs.”

These are ingredients and flavors from the Amazon. Atala travels there three or four times a year to find his ingredients. When he’s not so busy in the kitchen, he explains why he’s so fixated on native gastronomic culture. It has to do with Brazil’s — and South America’s — history of being colonized.

“As a colonized country, we always have more eyes for foreigner culture than our own culture,” he said. “And I'm super happy that nowadays people start to be proud to be Brazilian, to be ‘Amazonic,’ to be South American, to be Latin American."

One of his projects is building up small-scale producers. He brings out a Tupperware container and even before he opens it, you can smell the vanilla.

“It is amazing. A beautiful, not strong aroma. It almost reminds me of tobacco,” he said.

Inside the box are vanilla beans as long as bananas. They grow wild in the Amazon, where monkeys snack on them. Atala says he is working with local women to domesticate the vanilla bearing orchids in their homes.

“This woman can produce this beautiful vanilla for us and we can pay a beautiful price for helping their lives. The right people can be a very important social benefit, economic benefit and cultural benefit," he said. "And in the end, it can also be an environmental benefit as well.”

He may pay a “beautiful” price for this Amazon-grown fare. But not that many Brazilians can afford to eat at his restaurant. A dinner at DOM can cost a few hundred dollars. But Atala has another project that could introduce new flavors to people who might have a little less money to spend.

Just down the street from DOM is Atala’s small market, Mercadinho Dalva e Dito. It sells specialty items like chocolate pudding made from Amazonian cacao and cachaca liquor that numbs your mouth.

Priscilla Neto was visiting from another part of Brazil and wandered into the market. She says it’s a different place with different things, things she has never heard about.

And it’s Mariana Aires’ job to talk to customers about the unfamiliar foods.

"People often come in and ask me what to do with certain ingredients,” she said. “I explain to them where these things come from and how to prepare dishes that are new to them. People end up eating in a more conscious way.”

The market isn't cheap — think organic farmer’s market prices. And there aren't a ton of products. But Atala’s market is one of the first efforts to do something novel: formalize the process of bringing small-scale farmers’ products from the Amazon to cities in a sustainable fashion, and then brand the goods.

It’s not an easy undertaking. But it doesn't hurt to have international celebrity name recognition behind it.

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