Anatomy of a Plate with Chef Alex Atala

The Culinary Mind
Aug 4, 2017 · 10 min read

Its Best Moment

Invoke Emotion

Ingredient vs. Flavor

Local people in Brazil eat quite a lot of different types of insects. Maybe our culture, eating insects is disgusting. Why? Because our culture says that we only eat insects when we are hungry, we are miserable, we are suffering. Insects are disgusting and nauseating. It’s like eating vomit or shit, all this kind of stuff.

Once you know this, please tell me what it honey? It’s bee vomit.

Everything depends on you background and your culture. So, once I realized that if people in some parts of the world eat insects, and it can be delicious, wow, why not taste.

As a tradition, indigenous people eat insects. Mexico use, China use, and there are parts of Brazil as well.

The Baniwā tribe in Brazil eat those lemongrass ants not as a protein source, but something to savor on foods because the flavor is so strong.

The first time that I went in this area, a very old lady brings me a dark half coconut, with some ants and a very black sauce that they call black tucupi. She gave it to me to taste.

It was scary. So, I just taste the sauce, and a beautiful taste of ginger-lemongrass explode in my mouth. I ask her what was the herb that she used with that beautiful freshness and flavor?

She said, ‘Ants.’

I told her I can see the ants. There’s lots of them, but there’s another herbal taste.

And she said, ‘Ants.’

And I tried to ask again, so she said, ‘Shut up, taste the ants!’

I taste the ants and pow!

My first idea was to bring those ants to my restaurant, and try to explore ways that I can use them. Second was to return to Amazonas. Bring some ginger and lemongrass because they do not have those ingredients there, and cook for that woman.

I invite her to dinner, and the first dish was exactly the same preparation, the same dark bowl. The same black tucupi, but instead of putting ants, I put ginger and lemongrass, and I give it to her to taste. She was so happy that a chef was cooking for her.

She tasted the tucupi and was clearly disappointed.

I ask to her that she did not like? And she said, ‘it tastes like ants.’

She was expecting something new, and I give her a flavor that she has in her backyard. So everything is about perception.

To our culture, ants taste like lemongrass. To them lemongrass taste like ants. In that moment I experienced different cultural interpretations of one flavor.


The Culinary Mind

Written by

Hawaii based chef, Ed Morita has been blogging in one form or another since 2005. The Culinary Mind serves as an outlet where he focuses on various food issues.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade