In this excerpt from D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients, author and chef Alex Atala explores the role of ants as an ingredient in the Brazilian Amazon. The book is available now from Phaidon Press, in bookstores, and on Amazon.
“Which herbs did you put into this dish?”
“I would like to know which HERBS you used in the recipe.”
“Son, there’s only ants.”
This conversation took place in São Miguel das Cacheiras in the very north of Brazil. The person asking about the herbs was myself. And the woman answering my questions was Dona Brazi, a member of one of the 23 ethnicities that inhabit the region and who sells delicious food in the town’s central square. She did not speak Portuguese very well and, after trying her food, I thought she had not understood my question. I wanted to know which herbs and seasonings she had used to make her delicacies. But she had understood perfectly what I was asking. And the answer was simple. The seasoning used in that recipe was ants.
The relationship between man and insect needs to be better understood. Eating insects has always been associated with periods of food shortage, as protein supplementation. Weird, ugly, with no appetite appeal and, generally speaking, not much flavor, insects have always been pushed to the side. In the few instances of urban consumption, they are presented mostly as a tourist attraction.
But the world eats insects without realizing it. For example, they are used to make the cochineal that gives the red tone to the strawberry yogurt you give your kids every day. They also provide red dye to the textile industry. It is our cultural interpretation of the act of taking an insect into our mouths that defines the thin line between the primitive and the modern.
D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients by Alex Atala from Phaidon Press.
Available now in the Phaidon Store and Amazon.
In Brazil, a country nearly as large as the entire USA, there are many records of insect consumption. Not far from the city where I live, São Paulo, is a small region with a particular microclimate. In October, large queen ants more than 3 centimeters long sprout wings and start flying to create new colonies. An old, fun tradition in this region is to run after these ants, catch as many as one can, fry them and eat them – the last part of their bodies is chubby, like a large ball. They have two names – içá is what the local people all them, and tanajura is their name given in the caboclo culture, which comprises people of mixed Brazilian native and European ancestry. Brazilian women with generous bottoms are called tanajuras too. I don’t know if the ants gave the nickname to the women or vice-versa.
The only instance I know of a relationship between an and an edible insect that is not cultural nor a matter of protein supplement occurs in the northernmost tip of the Amazon, on the border between Colombia and Venezuela. The species eaten there are what we call saúvas in Brazil and hormingas limoneiras in Colombia and Venezuela. It was during one of my trips to the Rio Negro that I met Dona Brazi, with whom I was talking at the beginning of this section. In her city of São Miguel das Cahcoeiras, 90 percent of the population is native. Brazil’s official language, Portuguese, is only the second language. The most common language spoken there is Inhangatu, a combination of native languages created by evangelizing priests in an attempt to communicate with the hundreds of tribes in the period of Brazilian colonization.
This region, home to 23 ethnic groups speaking 21 languages, is one of the most protected areas of the Amazon. The work that anthropologists do here is of crucial relevance for the conservation of the area’s natural resource and the possibilities they offer. Just to give an idea, we now know that more than three hundred wild plant species have been domesticated by these ethnic groups. Some have not yet been described by science for use as food. And they risk disappearing, because their use has not been preserved.
One of these ethnic groups, called tucano, has a special relationship with the saúva ants. The insect is considered a delicacy and used as a spice would be. Dona Brazi presented me with a reduced tucupi broth. It was purple, almost black, with ants. The first time I tasted it, I was enchanted by the flavors. Dona Brazi’s ants have a strong note of lemongrass, supported by ginger and cardamom.
I invited Dona Brazi to come to São Paulo to teach my brigade about the wonders that she produced. She came and stayed with us. It was like receiving a shower of wisdom, a lot of information compressed into a very few words. When I made Dona Brazi try things that do not exist in the Amazon, such as lemongrass and ginger, she laughed and said that they tasted just like ants.
Ants and Pineapple
Peel the pineapple and cut into 4 equal cubes.
Finish and Presentation
4 saúva ants
Place a piece of pineapple on top of a serving dish and top with ant. Serve immediately.
Langoustine with mini rice and ant powder
10 grams saúva ants
10 grams dried nori seaweed
5 grams black salt
Pickled white radish
75 milliliters white wine vinegar
20 grams sugar
4 grams salt
75 grams white radish, peeled and brunoised
400 grams langoustine heads
1 leek, finely chopped
1 celery stick, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
Mini rice and langoustine
60 grams onion, finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
250 grams mini rice, rinsed
500 milliliters langoustine broth (above)
4 fresh langoustine
Salt and pepper
Blend the ants, seaweed and black salt in a Theromix. Sift and set aside.
Pickled white radish
Place the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a medium pan over low heat.
When bubbles start to appear around the edge of the pan remove the liquid from the heat, transfer it to a bowl and add the radish. Allow to cool.
Cover the radish and vinegar mixture and transfer to the refrigerator for at least 15 days before using.
Wash the langoustine heads under cold running water. Place all of the ingredients in a pan over low heat with 1.5 liters of water and heat, without boiling, for 40 minutes. Strain the broth and set aside.
Mini rice and langoustine
Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Fry the onion in a pan with a dash of oil. Stir in the rice and then gradually add the langoustine broth a ladle at a time. Season with salt and pepper. Cook the rice until tender and creamy. Set aside.
Place the langoustine on a tray with a dash of oil. Cook in the preheated oven for five minutes. Set aside.
Finish and presentation
Place a generous spoonful of rice in the center of each of 4 serving plates. Dust the ant powder over each serving of rice. Place a langoustine beside each serving of rice. Top the langoustines with the pickled white radish and serve.