It’s Dinnertime in the Amazon. Look What’s on the Chef’s Menu.
CACHICHIRA, Bolivia — The hunt began at nightfall under a crescent moon and with a chorus of frogs, which suddenly went silent when the rifles fired and the thrashing erupted. The bodies were dragged onto the deck of three boats: Six crocodilians were landed one night and 14 the next. Some were nearly eight feet long, head to tail.
As gastronomy leaps from one trend to the next, the search for the next new thing has become a quest without end for many chic restaurants. And the role of the chef is changing, too: The greatest cooks these days are also the greatest storytellers, not just serving up meals, but also long yarns about the who, what and where of the origins of their ingredients.
Which is why I was with some of the finest chefs in the Andes at Lake Colorada in northwestern Bolivia, home of the spectacled caiman — a relative of the alligator.
Once every few years, a group of cooks and owners from acclaimed restaurants in Bolivia, Argentina and Peru hire a river boat to take them to places unlisted in the Michelin Guide and where no food critic has likely ever dared to tread.
Here, at the lake and along the Beni River in the Bolivian Amazon basin, the restaurateurs were hunting for something new to cook.
They said I could join them on this adventure, and on an October day I went ashore with the chefs at an indigenous village of the Tacana people, whose caiman-hunting season had just begun.
The Tacanas had sent a delegation ahead to greet their visitors: A notary who takes caiman measurements, the village mayor who cuts fillets and two sharpshooters chewing huge wads of coca leaf which keeps them up at night as they spot the caiman’s eyes with flashlights from a canoe.
The caiman hunt would not be the only tale for the chefs on this trip for exotic new foods.
Consider the big fish story to be told about the paiche, a freshwater monster that looks like a carp, but far larger and prehistoric-looking.
Or the tale of cacao beans picked in the fall from trees that grow wild around the village of Carmen del Emero and which are composted in an undergrowth of strangler figs and jaguar droppings.
Or the story of tuyo tuyo, the larvae of a beetle that lives in an Amazonian palm tree, long a delicacy in these parts and more recently served as an appetizer at Gustu, a famed restaurant in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.
“We are seeing things hanging in your kitchens, foods you might not think people in cities would be interested in,” Marsia Taha, the head chef at Gustu, said one night to the elders in the village. “These are the things we are looking to buy.”
The food stories flow both ways, and sometimes, it’s the outsiders who teach the locals about what’s edible in this jungle.
Carmen de Emero
By The New York Times
“Callampa,” said Mauricio Barbón, the head chef at Amaz, a Lima, Peru, restaurant that specializes in using Amazonian ingredients. He was pointing to a fallen log with shelves of a flesh-colored fungus growing on it.
“We’ve never tried it before,” said an intrigued Javier Duri Matias, a young Tacana leader who was showing us through the forest.
The fungus looked almost exactly like an ear. Mr. Barbón explained that his recipe calls for blanching the fungus in water before it is served. He tore off a piece, and we chewed away, savoring the spicy aftertaste while also hoping the chef was correct in the identification of his mushroom.
As for the caimans in the lake, they are as much an experiment for conservationists as the chefs. A management program sets strict limits on how many may be hunted, of what size and when during the year. The Tacanas have learned they can earn far more selling certified pelts for export than they made when the hunting was uncontrolled.
Now, the clan is also selling the flesh to these enterprising chefs.
“Meat was always, if you will, on the table as another resource that would allow them to get more out of every animal,” said Rob Wallace, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society in Bolivia, a nongovernmental group that helped the Tacanas develop the conservation plan for the caiman.
The hunt, which goes on for several weeks in October, was a family affair. Mothers helped skin the meat as a baby swung in a hammock nearby. Others in the village played games with a large, luckless river turtle that lay on its backside, glum and unable to right itself.
In the village, caiman was not the only meat on the menu.
At one meal, the chefs discovered a giant tapir — a plant-eating mammal about the size of a pig with a short trunk — roasting on a grill and helped themselves to the ribs.
“I have never seen one dismembered this way,” said Mr. Barbón, licking his fingers. “It is truly delicious.”
Bernardo Resnikowski, a restaurant manager who wears luxurious sleeve tattoos and moonlights as a D.J., later arrived with two Tacana men carrying machetes and a bowl of red, slightly fermenting fruit, called kecho, which he shared with Ms. Taha and Mr. Barbón.
“Not enough flesh to eat, but you might blend them in a cocktail” was Ms. Taha’s verdict as she threw a handful into her mouth.
By the time the party next saw the firepit, there were no signs of the tapir. Instead, the giant river turtle had taken its place, doomed to the grill with its shell cracked open and stuffed with potatoes and chili peppers.
An old Tacana recipe book contains a litany of ways to make peta, their name for the creature, but the chefs seemed doubtful about the taste of the gooey innards, chewy skin and orphaned paws sitting atop rice.
“This kind of meat wouldn’t be legal to sell anyway, though the Tacanas are allowed to serve it in their villages,” Ms. Taha explained, saying the measure was to protect turtle populations.
“Who said we would sell it to you if it were legal?” barked Eduardo Cartagena, one of the village leaders, evidently enjoying his share of the turtle.
As night settled, the Tacanas were back on Lake Colorada. I sat in the back of a leaky canoe as Rene Rubén Lurici Aguilara, a sharpshooter, stood at the bow, a flashlight wedged between his chin and his shoulder, his rifle scanning the surface of the water.
A pair of caiman eyes surfaced, glowing gold in the light of the torch. The hunter took aim. Not quick enough. The caiman submerged, submarine-like.
It was the lucky one.
By 1 a.m., our boat was heavy with the weight of the bodies of five large reptiles.
While Gustu has been selling the caiman meat for some time, Amaz, in Lima, has had trouble getting a license to import the meat into Peru.
But over breakfast Mr. Barbón, the Amaz chef, couldn’t help but daydream about how he might serve up caiman meat one day for his customers, who have included the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
“We would try to fry it,” he said. “Frying is something everyone knows. What would you all do with it?”
“We try to use everything, down to the tail,” said Gabriela Lafuente, the owner of El Baqueano in Buenos Aires, who purchases meat from a crocodile farm in Argentina.
The chefs turned to Marcelo Saenz, a colleague of theirs at Jardín de Asia in La Paz.
He paused for a moment and thought.
“Caiman sushi,” he said.
Follow Nicholas Casey on Twitter: @caseysjournal
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