As a child in Puerto Ayacucho, gateway to Venezuela’s remote southern rainforests, Nelson Mendez was fascinated by tales of the isolated Yanomami Indians and their unusual diet.
“The old men would say: ‘The Yanomami have so many children because the monkeys they eat make them extremely virile,’ or ‘Those Indians walk through the forest for days, and they survive eating only spiders,'” Mendez said.
Years later, the 43-year-old chef’s fascination continues. And now he is working to preserve the Yanomami culture by bringing their cuisine to the mainstream, holding demonstrations on how to please discriminating palates with termites, monkeys and spiders.
“At the first event I held, everyone was shocked,” he said during a recent food fair. “After people try these things, they change.”
During a demonstration at the fair, an audience of amateur cooks and students gasped as Mendez unveiled a smoked white monkey used to make soup and his assistants handed out cookies made with “Bachaco,” large ants with an enduring, spicy aftertaste.
A tribe of isolated villages, the Yanomami inhabit mostly temporary settlements on both sides of Venezuela’s border with Brazil. Traditionally, Venezuela’s 6,150 Yanomami have lived by gathering, fishing and hunting with bows and blow guns.
Mendez _ who is the first chef in Venezuela to try to popularize Yanomami cuisine and is careful to use only animals that are not endangered _ said he chose the tribe “because they’re the most ethnically pure of them all, and don’t like to be near what they call ‘the white man,’ close to what we call civilization.”
During trips into the jungles of Amazonas state, where the Yanomami live, Mendez tries to help the tribe financially by hiring members to gather the ingredients he needs to replicate their foods. Ingredients such as tarantulas and giant ants.
He usually pays about 500 bolivars (20 U.S. cents) for each tarantula they catch, which involves luring the spiders out of holes.
Mendez said that on his first foray into the jungle, many Indians would not admit to eating worms or grubs because they knew most Venezuelans do not share such tastes. That changed once he ate a piece of grilled paca (a rodent weighing up to 22 pounds).
“They started to bring out all the things they had hidden,” Mendez said, laughing.
Other dietary staples of the Yanomami _ who cultivate edible insects inside rotten logs _ include cassava, plantains and grubs. Manioc, a large tuber often planted on the village outskirts, is leached and dried to remove cyanide, then baked into bread.
And rainforest animals ranging from monkeys to snakes to tapirs _ mammals with short snouts that roughly resemble a pig in shape and size _ are important sources of protein.
Venezuelans like Alvaro Insausti, a 21-year-old aspiring chef, have been excited by the chance to try a native cuisine (though he admitted being distracted by the immense tarantulas crawling about inside containers during Mendez’ recent demonstration).
“We have restaurants in Venezuela offering foods from all over the world _ Spanish, Chinese, Italian _ but unfortunately we don’t know anything about the cooking of our own indigenous tribes,” Insausti said.
Efforts like this to expose mainstream society to indigenous cultures can be good for all involved, but it must be done with care, said Mark Protkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, a Virginia-based group that works to preserve native communities.
“It needs to be done in a way that is culturally sensitive, which doesn’t disrupt the culture,” said Protkin, who has made several trips into Yanomami territory.
Mendez thinks he has found just such a way. He hopes to launch a restaurant offering Yanomami-style dishes Caracas _ if he can overcome the logistical hurdles involved in gathering and transporting ingredients from the remote jungle.
“People want to try it,” he said.