The Obscure Sauce That Is Changing Indigenous Economies in the Amazon

It’s made of fermented yuca

New Worlder
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5 min readJul 8, 2019

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Orellanas (oyster mushrooms) in a pil pil style sauce infused with tucupí negro at Bogotá restaurant El Chato. Alvaro Clavijo photo.

This story begins a partnership with New Worlder, the site that responsibly covers food and drink, chefs and restaurants, farmers, fishermen, and conservationists of the Americas in a way that appeals to both an American and a Latin American audience.

In the Amazon Basin, an ancestral sauce made from the fermented extract of yuca, something once believed to have no monetary value, is changing indigenous economies.

Called by myriad names, from tucupí preto and ají negro to casaramá and ualako, indigenous communities around the region passed down recipes from generation to generation.

To make it, yuca brava (Manihot esculenta), the poisonous form of yuca or manioc, is peeled and soaked in water for several days. After the juice separates from the starch, which gets used in bread, and is boiled, it becomes tucupí, a sour yellow juice used in traditional dishes like tacacá and pato no tucupí (boiled duck with tucupí) in the Brazilian state of Pará. When it is further reduced, it becomes tucupí negro, which was mostly unknown outside of indigenous communities until a few years ago.

Making tucupí negro is a labor-intensive process, and every community makes it a little bit differently. Some add peppers, seeds, or insects for additional flavor. Some variations are thin like a broth, while others reduce it to more of a paste.

A woman stirs tucupí negro. Nicholas Gill photo.
Ants being added into a cauldron of tucupí as it reduces. Nicholas Gill photo.
Bogotá chef Eduardo Martínez’s smoked chicken with yuca and ají negro. Nicholas Gill photo.

Traditionally, tucupí is used as a seasoning in stews and as a marinade for meats and fish, as well as a dip for cassava bread, though creative chefs in urban areas of South America are using it to inject their dishes with a shot of umami, creating a sudden demand that shows no signs of slowing.

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