Chewin’ the Fat: Amazonas

I’ve seen many things on my travels but this was most certainly a first. The Amazonas… quite incredible…

One of the purposes of this trip was to observe and learn from Alex Atala (Chef Patron of DOM Restaurant São Paulo, Brazil) and his team in order to assist my work here in Australia with Aboriginal communities. I have been struggling with the framework required to support a new Australian cuisine, a true gastronomic identity for Australia. Certainly travelling in a party, which included nutritionists and anthropologists, certainly helped me to refine the way such operations could be set up in Australia.

The work Alex has done in the Amazonas is inspiring to say the least. By his own admission he has made many mistakes in the past 10 years while developing his version of Brazilian cuisine, however, he has now found harmony between the native Indians of the Amazonas and the very different modern culture in São Paulo and the rest of Brazil. For me the opportunity to learn from not only Alex but also the anthropologists and nutritionists was an amazing experience and one that will make the path I’m travelling a little easier.

Part of our trip was to visit a community and open a purpose built kitchen in which the Baniwa people can make dried Amazonas pimenta powder. The Baniwa live on the borders of Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela in villages located on the banks of the Içana River and its tributaries the Cuiari, Aiari, Cubate and also in communities on the Upper Rio Negro/Guainía, the urban centres of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Santa Isabel and Barcelos. I’m sure these names sound just as unfamiliar and odd to you as they did to me before I left for South America, however, it didn’t take me long to familiarise myself with both the people and the land.

The Kuripako, who speak a dialect of the Baniwa language and are kin of the Baniwa, live in Colombia and on the upper Içana (Brazil). Both groups are highly skilled in the manufacture of arumã (aririte) basketry, an age-old art their creator heroes taught to them and which is being commercialised today in Brazilian markets. Recently, they have also become outstanding for their active participation in the indigenous movement in the region. This movement includes a cultural complex of 22 different indigenous groups who are articulated through a network of trade and are very similar in their social organisation, material cultural and worldview.

Alex’s work in founding an institute, which focuses purely on gastronomy while weaving in and out of traditional and recent culture in Brazil is brilliant. While it’s in its early stages, in fact not yet launched, the model is a great start for us here in Australia. Working with Beto Ricardo, the anthropologist responsible for ISA, gave me an opportunity to talk about how we can move forward with the help of anthropologists here in Australia. Previously I have not been able to work with anthropologists here, however, after talking with Beto I may have been a little brash and abrasive in my initial approach… time to eat humble pie.

All sounds a bit official and complex doesn’t it? Begs the question from many around me – ‘Aren’t you supposed to be a cook?’ Indeed I am nothing more than a cook, however, my interest in gastronomy goes far deeper than cooking. The origins of gastronomy in Australia are missing and this is something I aim to change. Australia will have its own gastronomic identity, its own cuisine. The roots of that cuisine will be based on the natural offering of this great country, meaning the food, which has been here for thousands of years, and more importantly, the culture that has been here for more than 60,000 years. This must then be the base, the roots of this new cuisine, but we must entwine recent culture, meaning settlers who arrived just over 200 years ago, as essentially this new cuisine must be a true representation of Australia, right? This cuisine should be able to tell a story, give a real taste of the land and its people just as it does in any other country. That story to me in today’s Australian gastronomy is most certainly missing. It’s time to do it, and in doing so heal the land through farming of these native crops and heal the gigantic divide that still exists between Aboriginal and recent Australians.

What does it look like? Taste like? That’s up to us cooks and chefs, those with a forward thinking mind. For my part… stay tuned… it’s coming…

Jock Zonfrillo is Magill Estate’s Head Chef