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Chefs See an Olympic Opportunity for Rainforest Preservation

Showcasing the unique foods of the Amazon this month, Brazilian chefs draw attention to the value of saving rainforest culture.

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A Brazilian man roasts manioc flour, which forms the basis of many foods, using traditional tools.

There are thousands of fruits, vegetables, and fish in the Amazon, but most of the world only knows a few dozen of them.

Rainforest to Table is a fledgling movement that aims to change that, enlisting top chefs from Latin America to work with indigenous tribes to learn about and promote foods from the rain forest in a very appealing way: by cooking them—and then giving back to these communities.

“This is a new tool in the toolbox when we think about conservation,” says Michael Jenkins of Forest Trends, a nonprofit conservation group, in a promotional video. Forest Trends, along with Canopy Bridge and āmaZ restaurant in Peru, launched the Rainforest to Table movement last November.

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Chef Paulo Machado of the Instituto Paulo Machado prepares chivé, a fermented liquid made from cassava (or manioc) that is a Brazilian tradition, at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Denver in June.

And its efforts may shine brighter under the spotlight of the summer Olympics starting in Rio this week.

Brazilian chef Paulo Machado has a lot of energy. He bounces from one topic to the next—how to eat the black lychee-like fruit jabuticaba, what to serve in a fermented vegetable liquid called chivé—as we video chat from his home in Campo Grande.

Campo Grande is in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, a grasslands region in central-west Brazil. It’s pretty far south of the Amazon, but Machado is intrigued by Amazonian ingredients and the connection between his region and the rain forest.

“What happens to one affects the other,” he says, whether the impacts are man-made or brought on by nature.

With the entire country under pressure to feed the world’s demands for soybean, cocoa, and cattle, he fears that the risk to native products and native ways of life are real.

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Chef Mara Salles of the restaurant Tordesilhas in São Paolo, Brazil, presses manioc paste in the traditional way during the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Olympic organizers tapped Machado and a handful of other chefs to cook local foods and talk about them at a special event during the games in the Media Center called Casa Brazil. And he says he will definitely talk about the endangered art of making farinha de mandioca.

At its most basic, farinha de mandioca is flour made from cassava (or manioc or yuca), a potato-like tuber found all over the country. But it's time-consuming work, involving peeling, soaking to leach toxic compounds, drying, then grinding, pressing out the liquid, and toasting the finished flour (see this photo essay of the process at The Perfect Pantry blog).

And that finished flour can then be further processed into tapioca balls or sour starch to yield a variety of breads and thickening agents. When combined with some seafood or meat and vegetables and seasonings, manioc becomes a meal.

“From all these branches, you can have 15 different things,” Machado says, like soups, breads, and more.

In fact, for some in the Amazon, manioc is all they have to eat. (See "7 Brazilian Foods to Know If You’re Going to the Olympics").

The wonders of manioc and efforts to preserve the ways of processing it are also a passion of Brazilian chef Mara Salles, who is one of the pioneers of native cuisine.

She uses tucupi sauce (fermented yucca juice) in her cooking, as well as the large freshwater fish known as arapaima, Brazil nut milk, and various vegetables to highlight the many regions of the country in her restaurant Tordesilhas in São Paolo.

But more than promoting products, Tordesilhas is concerned about how to help preserve the Amazonian biome and help the people who live there.

“The Amazon region is immense, with thousands of plant and animal species," says Tordeshilhas in an email. "At the same time, with all of its biodiverse riches, the Amazon is fragile, with most of its soil losing nutrients and its population living in poverty.”

“Communities that depend on the forest are vulnerable to deforestation, the siege of unscrupulous traders, and diseases; hence, the forest and all its wealth ends up being insufficient to ensure their survival,” she says.

She thinks that there should be more support for these products in small urban markets that will “keep [native peoples] linked to their environment with dignity.”

The way to get there? Keep talking about it.

Rainforest to Table organized a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Denver last month highlighting Machado, Tordesilhas, and other chefs’ efforts to draw attention to the unique foods and culture of the region.

Machado recently opened an institute in his hometown to attract foreigners to take South American food “safaris,” and Tordesilhas is celebrating 25 years of service this year.

But with the focus on Brazil during the Olympics this year, much of it negative, Machado sees cooking Amazonian foods for others as an opportunity to be positive.

“The Olympics is no doubt a way to make Brazil closer to the world," he says. "Foreigners will be more in touch this year with our culture, our way of life, and also the interests of people in Brazilian [native ways of life] will be more apparent."