The Great Amazonian Pantry: How Eating the Products of the Rainforest Could Save the Earth

03/16/2015 06:40 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015


A glass of camu camu juice at Malabar restaurant, Lima, Peru

There is a type of river snail -- a churo -- in the Peruvian Amazon, large and meaty, that is especially delicious when slow-braised and served in the shell with a bright sauce of golden tapioca pearls. Indigenous people harvest the giant snail when the forest is flooded and transformed into an otherworldly realm where, because of the rising water level, fish swim among the majestic kapok tree and through the umbrella-like branches of the cecropia tree.

"People go through the middle of the flooded forest in their canoes, where the churos have laid their eggs in the treetops," explains biologist Miguel Tang, of the Association of Amazonians for the Amazon (AMPA). They pluck the snails right off the trees as the canoes glide by, harvesting only the fully grown specimens to ensure that the snail population will continue. "It's as if they're collecting fruit from the trees, no?" Tang says with a smile.

He's chatting with Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, owner of two of Lima's most acclaimed restaurants, Malabar and Ámaz, at a meeting of the Katoomba Group, an international network of individuals working to identify opportunities for climate policy and finance to align for forest conservation. The meeting, held in Peru last April, served as a precursor to the international climate negotiations that took place at the 20th COP meeting (Conference of the Parties) in December.

The Katoomba meeting had particular focus on the vision and leadership in the country in terms of forests, water, people, and climate change, and Chef Schiaffino's menu was a critical part of that focus.

"We believe gastronomy, from the perspective of sustainability, is a very important tool for preserving the ecosystems that provide its resources," Schiaffino says.

That's because agriculture, at the center of Peru's low-income economy, has placed a premium on products, like asparagus, over renewable resources in the coastal zones and now-renewable resources in the highlands. Tang and Schiaffino highlight that value by using mostly local products from the San Martin region -- most of which could only come from a living forest rather than from a farm.

Among several dishes crafted to reflect the bounty of the jungle, they served patarashca de paiche (the prehistoric 450-pound fish known as the "King of the Amazon," prepared in bamboo, a method that was unheard of outside of a few remote Amazonian villages until recently) and traditional inchicapi (a creamy soup made with chicken, peanuts, and ground corn).

"We used the products that we found around us," explains Chef Schiaffino. "That's very important, because both Miguel and I believe that the Amazon region -- not only in Peru but in Latin America -- has an enormous potential to develop a cuisine that could ultimately help preserve that place where it comes from ... tonight we wanted to prepare a dinner that made people curious about the ingredients, the flavors of the Amazon."

Their work is nothing short of revolutionary. As the newspaper The Australian put it, "the food of the Amazon jungle is so new, so wild, and so hard to source that no other chef has ever bothered to build a whole menu around them."

Peruvian Food: "The New Thai"

Peruvian cuisine in general, though, is riding an international and growing popularity wave: from traditional tacu tacu (rice and lentils) and salty black botija olives on the menu at Fresca, a "nouveau Peruvian" restaurant in San Francisco's Pacific Heights, to the rocoto oroshi (stuffed fiery red peppers) at Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio's Al Mar restaurant in Miami. Celebrity chef Acurio is celebrated alongside powerhouse chef Ferran Adrià in a documentary film about Peruvian cuisine, Peru Sabe: Cuisine as an Agent for Social Change. In an article entitled "Ancient, Peruvian Are Hot Food Trends," USA Today declared that "Peruvian is the new Thai," referencing the proliferation of Asian-fusion cuisine in the early 2000s.

The Wall Street Journal proclaimed, "Peruvian cuisine, the result of a nearly 500-year melting pot of Spanish, African, Japanese and Chinese immigration and native Quechua culture, is on the lips of top chefs worldwide ... Ceviche, the country's famous cured-seafood salad, abounds on menus, even outside of Peruvian spots: Haute cuisine temples Le Bernardin and Daniel both serve it. Peruvian chefs say they are able to entice investors to finance homages to their national cuisine for the first time."

And one of Peruvian cuisine's hottest stars is Pedro Miguel Schiaffino himself, known as the "jungle chef." He cooked for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain when they visited Peru, and in addition to his five-star restaurants, he worked on the luxury Amazon cruise ship the MV Aqua.

Preserving Ecosystems, One Plate at a Time

In recent years, global demand from Peru for that Easter-table staple, asparagus, has sky-rocketed. Imported Peruvian asparagus has become a year-round fixture in supermarkets worldwide -- but production of this "luxury vegetable" consumes large amounts of water.

The forests of the country store enormous amounts of carbon and are home to breathtaking biodiversity, both of which are benefits to not only Peru but the whole world, particularly in the face of climate change. Yet an astonishing amount of forest is lost every day to illegal logging and agricultural activities, and the deforestation rate in this fertile country continues to climb at a troubling rate.

The World Wildlife Fund reports that in Peru, "[a]n astounding 715 hectares of forest is lost every day. Illegal logging is a significant contributory factor, but slash-and-burn and other agricultural activities, in particular coca growing, have driven Peru's current deforestation rate to approximately 261,000 ha per year." In response, Peru has committed to achieving zero deforestation by 2021, as a commitment under the United Nations climate-change negotiations process.

Indigenous communities in the region struggle with food security, as their traditional crops are threatened by the consequences of climate change and economic pressures from outside of their communities to engage in practices that would destroy their sustaining food sources. The market's high demand for cocoa and coffee -- and the subsequent monoculture crops -- has come at the expense of traditional crops, farming practices, and precious biodiversity. All of these elements have contributed to a loss of cultural knowledge and to greater food insecurity in these communities.

One answer, Schiaffino says, may lie in the development of sustainable fishing in the Amazon, as the giant paiche that he serves are raised and harvested. "I think sustainable fishing is very important for the conservation of the indigenous communities, the rivers and the species of fish. I think this kind of fishing has a huge potential, and could become a source of more efficient protein in the world."

Falling in Love With Diversity

"Miguel is in love with the Amazon -- not only the Amazon, but all of Peru," says Tang. "He's an explorer, no? And through that exploration he has fallen in love with biodiversity. We have found each other along a very interesting path."

That path has brought the worlds of conservation and gourmet food together. Since 2007, AMPA, where Tang serves as the director of the Green Economies program, has been focused on the development and marketing of products of Andean-Amazonian biodiversity. Their "Sustainable Amazon" program is dedicated to bringing sustainable, biodiverse products to the restaurant industry, Tang explains. AMPA seeks to protect the forest and improve the livelihood of local Amazonian communities, especially by insuring the long-term availability of the great variety of unique crops -- which Schiaffino is using in his cuisine.

The challenge is how to make these special ingredients easier to source, as one of the ways of opening up new "green economies" in Amazonian regions and preserving the forests and other ecosystems that generate these valuable, unique products. One such answer lies in websites like CanopyBridge, which connects sellers of sustainable, wild-harvested products to buyers around the world.

Chef Schiaffino, born in Peru and trained in the U.S. at the Culinary Institute of America, returned to his roots in the last decade, learning all he could about the foods and people of the Amazon, from jungle farmers to fishermen, especially in the remote, little-explored Iquitos region. "The Amazon presents a huge diversity -- enormous," he explains. "It allows us to imagine many things, many products. And Miguel is always beside me in this work, explaining how these products have to be treated so they can flourish and be used."

Having "fallen in love with biodiversity," Schiaffino is now a champion of the crucial connection between biodiversity and climate change. Biodiversity supports the vital contributions of the ecosystem of the Amazon -- as the "lungs of the planet" -- and as such, sustainably managing biodiversity is critical to both climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

The work of the two men has spawned several success stories involving products from the region. "Our relationship with Pedro Miguel began with the provision of river shrimp produced in the San Martin region ... We have been able to standardize the production of shrimp (post-harvest and through the supply chain), substantially improving conservation technology to small aquaculture producers so that they can distribute the product nationwide," says Tang.

Post-COP: Can Peru Deliver?

As host of last year's COP, where more than 190 countries convened, Peru played a major role in the event.

In a speech he delivered in Bonn at a climate change conference earlier, the country's minister of the environment, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, highlighted Peru's dedication to being at the forefront of the work. "Peru is a country absolutely committed to the negotiations and its progress in dealing with climate change. We are committed to the Durban Platform agreement and we know that in Warsaw 2013, Lima 2014 and Paris 2015 we will come to a binding climate agreement, for the planet, for the people and for our citizens. Those of us who serve the public are aware that our fundamental priority is our people, especially the most vulnerable-those who suffer the consequences of climate change."

Just days after President Obama announced a national climate-action plan, Peru's national congress passed the Payments for Ecosystem Services law (Ley de Mecanismos de Retribución por Servicios Ecosistémicos), which will create a legal framework for conservation efforts that harness private capital and public funding.

In many ways, as the work of Chef Schiaffino and Miguel Tang demonstrates, Peru is uniquely positioned to provide a model for the world of how a country can use its own resources -- like the "exotic fruits of the forest" -- and culture to sustain itself.

Celebrating Food, Peru, and Biodiversity

Every year, Peru hosts an enormous event, Mistura, a two-week-long fair showcasing the food and traditions of the country. More than half a million people attend, from Peru and beyond. Organized by the Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia (APEGA), the gathering -- a tasty, colorful, and spirited event in which dance, music, art, and especially food are celebrated -- points to the rising importance that gastronomy plays in the country's culture. One of the central goals of the fair is to strengthen the alliance between farmers and the restaurant industry, and the variety of stands that display food products from all over -- including the Amazon -- illustrates Peru's tremendous biodiversity and commitment to sustainable gastronomy.

Emblematic of the country's gastronomic boom, Mistura, like the work of Schiaffino and Tang, offers a joyful -- and delicious -- dose of optimism. Every time someone tastes Schiaffino's "exotic" food, there is born an awareness of the vital -- yet tenuous -- connection between the preservation of the rainforests, the food we eat, and the future of our planet. In the end, it may just be the simple act of cooking a delicious dish made from products of the rainforest -- in an out-of-the-box way -- that best exemplifies the vital preservation of biodiversity and traditional culture in the face of climate change.

"I am very grateful and excited to work with Pedro Miguel," says Tang. "He inspires through his kitchen, and motivates us to explore new alternatives and new forms of presentation from the cuisine of the great Andean-Amazonian pantry. What he does makes all this possible -- the management of ecosystems that provide these products, contributing to the conservation of biodiversity and Amazonian culture, and the development of farming communities in the medium and long term."

This report was filed by Ann Clark Espuelas. Follow her on Twitter.