Chef Alex Atala is famous for scouring the Amazon for interesting new ingredients. At his Science & Food lecture, Primitive X Modern, Chef Atala shared some of his innovative creations with everyone in the audience. One ingredient in particular really challenged our perception of what we consider to be edible: Amazonian ants!
While we don’t expect insects to show up in American grocery stores any time soon, it is estimated that at least 2 billion people worldwide already eats insects on a regular basis . Here are 6 things you might not know about eating insects:
“What is honey? The excrement of an insect. If you actually consciously think about what honey is, it’ll disgust you. But we are familiar with it, we have an interpretation of it being sweet. Hell, in English we’ll say, ‘Honey, I love you.’”
-Alex Atala, Eater 2011
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2013) Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security. http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm
Editor’s note: The original post stated that shellac and cochineal come from beetles when, in fact, they come from insects in the “true bug” order Hemiptera. Thanks to our astute readers for catching this mistake! The post has now been updated (10-24-2013 9:55 a.m. PST)
About the author: Liz Roth-Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in Molecular Biology at UCLA. If she’s not in the lab, you can usually find her experimenting in the kitchen.
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Primitive X Modern: Cultural Interpretations of Flavors
Featuring Alex Atala April 17, 2013
Chef Alex Atala joined Science & Food to discuss his approach to food, how his cooking has been impacted by science, and how cooking is fundamentally tied to larger issues of natural conservancy and humanitarianism. Atala is renowned for pioneering regional cuisine using indigenous Brazilian ingredients and works closely with anthropologists and scientists to discover and classify new foods from the Amazonian region. Watch the entire lecture or check out some of the shorter highlights below.
On creativity, innovation, and a vegetarian tasting menu
“For me as a chef creativity is something very, very, very important. In my personal perspective or professional perspective, creativity is not to do something that no one has done before. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s to do something that everybody does in an unexpected way. This is creativity. I make food, I don’t make miracles . . . It is almost impossible to make something new. It is possible to make something unexpected.”
On black rice and helping local producers thrive
Atala tells the story of a small rice producer in Brazil who, unable to compete with big agribusiness, turned away from traditional white rice and started growing black rice. At the time, black rice was thought to be “diseased,” and many laughed at the producer for growing such an undesirable commodity. But Atala disagreed – he met the producer, tried the black rice, and started cooking with it. He began sharing with other chefs and showing it to the media. By embracing black rice and using it in a new way, Atala was able to change the producer’s life.
“Sometimes creativity is not doing something that no one has done before, it’s doing something that you’ve known for your entire life in an unexpected way.”
On tucupi and making poisonous plants edible
Tucupi is a traditional Brazilian sauce prepared from lightly fermented manioc juice. Because yellow manioc contains high levels of poisonous hydrogen cyanide, it must be boiled for an entire day to make it safe to consume.
“In Brazil, we have manioc, yucca, it’s very important for us. We have two families: the white one who is friendly and the yellow one who is poisonous. Natives prefer the poison one . . . it tastes better.”
On mandioca and the challenge of being simple
“Being simple is a challenge for a chef, because being simple is not easy. It’s so complex. Having one dish with three ingredients is a huge challenge for a chef.”
On cultural interpretations and eating insects
“I was very deep in Amazonas, and I went to a tribe, and an old lady gave me a small sauce with a few ants inside . . . and I tasted it and said ‘Wow, beautiful. What herb do you put in here?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Ants.’ . . . There’s this beautiful taste . . . cardamom, lemongrass, ginger. We didn’t have these flavors in Amazonas . . . I went back to Amazonas with my lemongrass, my ginger, and I made the same sauce, and I gave it to her to taste. And she tasted it: ‘tastes like ants!’”
On priprioca and discovering new ingredients
Atala has worked with scientists in the cosmetics industry to analyze the components of priprioca and evaluate its safety as an edible ingredient. He hopes that Amazonian natives will soon be allowed to produce and sell priprioca essence to restaurants and food companies.
“I was in the lab working, and I look at the analysis of priprioca, and I say ‘maybe this can be edible.’ … [we] put it in a chromatographer and made the analysis, and there are no alkaloids and no representative toxic levels . . . So we started to use it.”
On our relationship with food
“My prep doesn’t start in my kitchen, it starts with natural conservation. It’s clear protecting the river, the sea, the lands, the fields, the forests—but we can forget a natural being, called a human being. People from the forest, from the sea, from the lands, from the fields must be supported as well. Our relation with food must be reviewed.”
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Chef Alex Atala is the chef and owner of D.O.M. in São Paulo, Brazil. In 2012, D.O.M. was ranked the fourth best restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino. As part of his vision for Brazilian cuisine, Chef Atala has worked with anthropologists and scientists at the Social Environmental Institute to discover and classify new food products from the Amazonian region. Read more
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Two weeks from now, renowned Brazilian chef Alex Atala will be joining Science & Food for the first 2013 public lecture at UCLA. Chef Atala has generated a lot of buzz in the food world by discovering and classifying new ingredients from the Amazon basin. But Atala isn’t the only one looking to the South American rain forest for inspiration. By studying the fruit of the tropical plant Margaritaria nobilis(commonly known as the bastard hogberry), a team of researchers led by Dr. Mathias Kolle has created an amazing new material that changes color as it stretches. Read more
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We can’t wait to see you at the 2013 Science & Food lectures!
Primitive X Modern: Cultural Interpretations of Flavors Featuring Chef Alex Atala Wednesday, April 17 @ 7:00pm
Moore Hall 100 (map)
Chef Atala will discuss his approach to food and how his cooking has been impacted by science. Atala is renowned for pioneering regional cuisine using indigenous Brazilian ingredients and works closely with anthropologists and scientists to discover and classify new foods from the Amazonian region.
Edible Education Featuring Chef Alice Waters, Dr. Wendy Slusser, and Chef David Binkle Thursday, April 25 @ 7:00pm
Royce Hall Auditorium (map)
Chef Alice Waters will be joined by Professor Wendy Slusser and Chef David Binkle to provide and informative discussion on initiating change in how we eat through school lunches, edible gardens, and healthy campuses.
The Science of Pie Featuring Chef Christina Tosi and Chef Zoe Nathan Sunday, May 19 @ 2:00pm
Covel Commons Grand Horizon Room (map)
Chefs Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan will share their perspectives on inventing desserts, with a particular emphasis on pie. Here, the students of the Science & Food undergraduate course will present results from their final projects, including live taste tests of apple pies. Final projects will be judged by a panel of esteemed local chefs, scientists, and food critics including Christina Tosi, Zoe Nathan, Jonathan Gold, and UCLA Professors Andrea Kasko and Sally Krasne.
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