Year for the Planet Week 30: Indigenius – Food Wisdom from the Amazon

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.

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To live and thrive in the jungle is no easy task. The forest is punishing to those who choose to go against it, and so if you wish to survive, you must take what you need (and only what you need). One day, there was this lady who brought in all kinds of fruit and vegetables that I had never seen before. It explained a lot of the dishes we were eating. And so while immersed for 10 days in the Amazon, I realized that there are several threads that weave into the indigenous Amazon diet:

1. Resourcefulness

Amazonians use one ingredient to make multiple kinds of dishes. And so cassava flour can be turned into a staple (tapioca), a condiment (farofa), or a dessert (cakes or ice cream). Some of these can even be used for other non-food purposes, such as acai being used not just in snacks, but also as a cosmetic, or with its seeds used as jewelry.

2. Taste hacking

By this, I mean that they turn seemingly gross things to taste amazing. Take cupuaçu for example. What a strange and frankly, ugly fruit. But by using it intelligently, you can turn it into the most amazing dessert imaginable.

3. Simplicity

To make tapioca, you just need the flour and heat it up in a pan. Period. If you want to get fancy, you can put butter in it, but the powder will pancake itself. Seeing this was unexpected, as is using “pancake” as a verb. This makes it easy to see local food not just in fancy restaurants but also in street corners and at home kitchens. They can be both camping food or gourmet food, depending on how much time you have on your hands.

4. Seasonal eating

The locals eat with the harvest as well as with the region, and so when I traveled to Rio de Janiero after the Amazon, I was a bit upset that some of the things I had gotten used to were not there. But it meant that I could try and get used to other things, which was great as there were so many new dishes to eat.

5. Variety

I cannot recall all the dishes we had tasted, simply because there were so many of them. This made for a more diverse travel diet and gut bacteria which were great for both my trip and health. Having a variety of things to eat can also trick you into eating less because so many kinds of food signal abundance, and when I stepped onto the scale when I got home, I was in shock to realize that I hadn’t gained weight at all. It’s a Christmas miracle, people! (Of course, all those hiking expeditions helped, too.)

These characteristics of local food are things that sound like they came out of a hipster cookbook, except that these people have been doing this for hundreds of years and for way cheaper. These are lessons I am glad to take with me, back into the chaotic drab city which frankly is way less preferable that an intimidating rainforest with wild animals.

As much as I enthuse about local food, I am also wary of the avocadization of many of these dishes. You know what I mean—when one food becomes trendy in developed countries such that demand and prices go up at the expense of the communities to which these foods are a staple. While I would be thrilled for things like farofa, cupuaçu, tapioca, and all the amazing things I ate in Brazil to be available in all places to go to, perhaps, at least for now, it would be better for them to stay in magical South America.

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