Tokyo eats the Amazon with Brazil’s Alex Atala


Special To The Japan Times

It’s a long way from the Amazon rain forest to downtown Tokyo, and even further when it comes to food — as diners discovered at two events organized by the Brazilian Embassy earlier this month.

The official purpose was to mark the 120th anniversary of Japan’s diplomatic relations with Brazil, and also to prepare for the handover of the Olympic flag from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo. But more fundamentally, the aim was to introduce Tokyo to the remarkable cuisine of chef Alex Atala and some of the foods that have propelled his Sao Paulo restaurant, D.O.M., to global prominence.

He showcased his cooking at two events in collaboration with chef Yoshihiro Narisawa, whose eponymous restaurant in Tokyo’s Aoyama district enjoys similar global renown.

Before flying home, Atala spoke with The Japan Times about Amazonian fruits, eating ants and his relationship with Japan.

This is not your first time in Japan. Are you starting to understand the territory now — the culture and the cuisine?

It’s my seventh visit. And the more I come here, the more I realize the depth of the culture. I grew up in Sao Paulo, where there’s a big Japanese community, and I have Japanese-Brazilian friends. But once you come to Japan you realize the culture is not as simple as you supposed before.

In the (Japanese) kitchen, there’s not the variety of ingredients that we have in Brazil but the cuisine is so specialized — the guy who makes sushi only makes sushi. As a Western chef, we are trained to understand everything and to be able to repeat everything. But once I came to Japan I realized, “OK, someone who can do everything will never be good at doing just one thing.” Japanese chefs are incredible.

But this was the first time you actually cooked here?

Yes. Actually, when I was in Kyoto six years ago I did a small demonstration of my cuisine, but making a real dinner — together with chef Narisawa — this was the very first time.

Why did you visit Japan this time?

Mainly to cook with Narisawa. We’ve known each other for many years. We’ve cooked together in various places around the world and he has been to my place in Brazil.

As a chef, you ask yourself, “What could be the next challenge?” And for me it was, “Maybe cooking in Tokyo with Narisawa — and showing off some new flavors.” For me, the aim was to push my boundaries.

What was the Brazilian Embassy’s involvement in your visit?

We talked with them to get their support in bringing in the ingredients. There was no way I could bring Brazilian products through customs without a rigorous inspection process. That’s why we agreed to do the second event at the embassy — to make the dream come true.

What were some of the ingredients you brought with you?

Brazil has amazing fruits. I picked three very special ones from the Amazonas (the Amazon basin): Caju (cashew apple) has a flavor unlike any other — I served that with uni (sea urchin); cupuacu is like a primitive ancestor of cacao — the taste is amazing; and bacuri (platonia fruit) is very floral — it may be my very favorite flavor and I served that one with ants.

And then there is tucupi (sauce made from wild cassava root). This is our Brazilian source of umami for cooking. It is fermented, slightly acidic, with a light bitterness that’s balanced by some sweetness. Combined with wild cilantro and chili, the complexity of flavors — I love that combination.

It’s made from cassava root, which is the basic staple food of our native population. Tapioca is the starch from the root. From the pulp we make flour. And the leftover liquid is fermented, it is boiled down with local herbs. Because it’s so rich in cyanic acid, it has to be cooked down a long time to volatilize the toxins.

If I say the words “tomato, basil, mozzarella,” your mind travels to Italy. If I say “seaweed, ginger, soy sauce,” you think of Japan. Tucupi, wild cilantro and the chillies I use, those are the typical flavors of the Amazonas.

You were the first person to introduce ants to the world of fine dining. Now Rene Redzepi serves them at Noma in Denmark and Zaiyu Hasegawa serves them at Den in Tokyo.

Our ants have a taste like ginger and lemongrass. When I tried them first in the Amazonas, I realized how strong they are — not just their taste, but also as a way to make people face their own cultural interpretation of flavor. In our culture, ants are not considered delicious. But honey also comes from insects, and the way it’s produced is pretty disgusting, but it’s delicious.

There is a strong parallel with Narisawa’s signature Soup of the Soil dish, which is made from actual earth and intended to challenge people’s preconceptions. What was the reaction to the dinner you cooked with Narisawa?

I heard the guests really loved it. Sometimes people are just being kind to the chef (in what they say), but I knew Narisawa was happy.

We are friends, we have lots of respect for each other. But I could feel he had a lot of anxiety before the dinner. This was the first time he had invited someone to cook in his restaurant. So when I saw that he had relaxed, I said to myself, ‘Things didn’t go badly!’

Has Japan influenced your cooking?

So much! Japanese recipes have many ingredients but they are not composed of too many flavors. That’s the opposite of French cuisine. This has been a huge influence on me.

About 10 years ago, I used to make more technical and complex cuisine. I already wanted to simplify my cuisine around the time I first came to Japan. Then I was taught to make a dashi cooking stock, and that made me want to simplify not only the number of ingredients in each recipe, but even in my broth. And that could be dangerous, because with three or four flavors the balance is far more difficult than if you have 10 flavors.

Simple is not easy at all. This is something I learned from Japan.