Chefs finding creative ways to garnish their dishes is nothing new. In fact, the manner in which a dish is garnished can actually serve to set a particular dish apart, or it can serve as a signature for a particular chef. Chefs in Brazil are definitely pushing the envelope when it comes to what they are topping their dishes with. As a general rule, the knowledge that there are ants in the kitchen is not a good thing, but that is rapidly changing.
It turns out that the top chefs in Brazil are leading what is now being dubbed a gastronomic revolution, primarily by adding certain Amazonian delicacies, including insects, to their dishes. It is not only the addition of insects to the menu that has ignited this revolution, but the new pioneering techniques that are being used in the preparation of these dishes has also created quite the stir. As the professional food preparation industry has become increasingly popular, chefs have been forced to become more creative, leading to some highly sophisticated menus. The addition of insects to these sophisticated menus has definitely served to elevate the level of variety and creativity associated with the food preparation and presentation process.
While adding insects to the menu may seem excessively exotic to some, it is actually the initiative of Brazilian chefs to acknowledge the powerful influence and value of Brazilian culture has on their unique dishes.
The industry has witnessed similar trends in the past, such as Norma’s flowers and uncommon plants or the molecular gastronomy revolution ignited by Ferran Adria in the 90s. If the previous trends are any indication, these new trends involving insects may very well lead to a more widespread use of insects as a part of the sophisticated menus created by Michelin chefs in the area.
It was Alex Atala, the owner and chef of D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, which is ranked as the ninth best restaurant in the world, who initiated this trend of breaking the unwritten rules of high-end gastronomy. He did this the first time he served a dish with an Amazonian leaf-cutter ant on one of his most requested $200 desserts — a pineapple cube.
While this act of gastronomic defiance may appear too abstract, Atala is actually an avid researcher of Amazonian food, and he became aware of the edible ants while visiting Sao Gabriel das Cachoeiras, which is located in a highly remote area in the Amazon. According to legend the occupants of this remote territory have been consuming insects prior to historical recordings.
According to Atala, when he visited the area, he was approached by an elderly woman who offered him a bowl of ants. He said he tried the ants and found that the taste was extraordinary, having a taste similar to ginger.
What may seem like a simple coincidence is actually significantly more, as Sao Gabriel das Cachoeiras borders Argentina and Columbia, and area that is widely considered to be one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse areas in the world. It is through the merging of these cultures that the exotic becomes ordinary. There are more than 20 indigenous groups living within in this area, with a significant number of them consuming ants as a normal part of their diet. According to experts, insects are an immensely valuable source of healthy animal protein, and they don’t produce the negative side effects of other animal proteins, such as red meat.
Von Held, who has spent more than 35 years researching the indigenous groups in Brazil says that it is still unclear where the consumption of ants begin in this region, but it is likely that it all started with the inhabitants of Sao Gabriel das Cachoeiras or some far-off tribe deep in the Amazon.
While many of the tribes in the Amazon eat ants raw, there are some who cook them as a part of the preparation to consume them. It is interesting that originally these indigenous groups would only eat ants in the presence of members of their tribe or in private. It is believed that this was due to the shame that was initially associated with eating insects. However, the rise in the popularity of consuming ants has served to eliminate the need for these groups to hide their dietary practice of consuming insects.
Historically speaking, eating insects in South America has been associated with poverty, while in other areas of the world, such as China, insects are considered as delicacies. It is common to serve scorpions as appetizers or snacks in China. Additionally, roasted crickets are a common delicacy in Mexico — being served with seasoned guacamole.
This seems to be considered a breaking of the rules due to the fact that many cultures have narrowed the access to animal protein to bovine and poultry, completely ignoring insects as a viable source of animal protein. One thing that has served as a catalyst to investigate other sources of nutrients and food is the rapid rate at which the world population is growing along with the challenge to meet the food needs of the population.
If Atala’s ant-laden pineapple cube seemed extravagantly exotic, then the ant burger will definitely capture the attention of patrons. Meats, a burger bar founded by a 26-year-old chef named Paulo Yoller, is rapidly becoming a favorite, and one of its most popular burgers is the fat-free burger that is seasoned with a vinaigrette of ants.
What this new trend signals is a change in philosophies, as the tradition of copying Italian and French chefs is being abandoned in lieu of establishing a separate and distinct identity in Brazil.
While there is definitely a new trend developing, ants have yet to become commercialized in Brazil, and many experts are suggesting that it is still too early to know whether this will become a mainstream phenomenon, or if it is only a passing fetish. However, the introduction of ants into the food menu of Michelin chefs in Brazil has definitely grabbed the attention of the public and media in the country.