Restaurant owner and Venezuelan native, Irena Stein, believes that the only way to support the economy in her troubled home country is to support indigenous agriculture. This is why she is bringing unique ingredients from the Venezuelan Amazon to her Baltimore restaurant, Alma Cocina Latina. Starting with the restaurant’s cocktail program, Stein is incorporating ingredients such as tonka beans, lemon ants, and kumachi, among others.
Supporting Indigenous Amazonians
Stein, who founded Alma Latina along with her husband Mark Demshak, started traveling back home to bring ingredients like artisanal chocolate and rums not available in the US. During one of these trips she was introduced to Sabores Aborígenes Venezolanos by Carlos Garcia, Chef owner of Alto, an award winning Caracas restaurant. Garcia was hosting Sabores at the restaurant to do a demonstration of the products for his team. Stein was immediately hooked.
Sabores Aborígenes Venezolanos is an interesting start-up from local chef Lucía Quero and her son-in-law Harold Quevedo. The mission is the transformation and sustainable development of products from the Venezuelan Amazon to preserve ancestral ingredients and cuisine, with the support of the indigenous people.
The organization investigates, processes and disseminates fruits, tubers, and products from the Amazonia and Estado Bolivar regions of Venezuela as a profitable economic sustenance for these communities, which seek to abandon their only other source of income – illegal mining.
“The Wötjüja and Yekuana indigenous communities are trying to develop an economy based on gathering fruit, roots, herbs, whatever they can from the rainforest as a way of subsistence because the alternative is just the gold mines,” says Stein. “That has become the only income for all these communities.”
A Unique Cocktail Program
When local mixologist Maja Griffin joined the Alma team, things started to take shape. “I have always been bringing ingredients to Alma in my luggage because nothing is really formalized, especially between Venezuela and the US,” adds Stein. “I always bring limited things, but last December, I started bringing a few more. Because Maja had just joined us in January, it was a perfect opportunity for an artist like her to start developing drinks based on these ingredients.”
“The more I started to look into specific cultural drinks, I kind of wanted to blend [these ingredients] into every little thing that I tried to do, taking the ingredients from these amazing communities in the Amazon rainforest, trying to put these cultures together through certain flavor profiles,” says Griffin, who has recently moved on from Alma Latina but is still proud of this endeavor.
She was formally blessed by the people of the rainforest to use the ingredients that they gather, “and they don’t say that lightly, when they say something like this,” says Stein. “It’s serious. I sent them all her work via Whatsapp to illustrate what we’re doing and they were amazed. It’s so wonderful.”
Some of the ingredients sourced by Sabores Aborigenes Venezolanos which Griffin used in creating the cocktail menu are lemon ants, túpiro, arazá (Amazonian guava), copoazú (Amazonian cacao), manaca, ají murupí (a type of chile,) haba tonka (Sarrapia, or tonka beans) and kumachi, a hot sauce made from indigenous yucca, ants, and local chiles. The full process is seen here.
Tonka beans, which are used extensively in South American dishes, are seeds of the kumaru tree. Kumaru, belonging to the pea family, is native to South America. Also called tonquin beans, they look like black-colored raisins on the outside with a smooth-textured brown interior. Tonka beans are deeply scented, with an aroma that is fruity, floral, woody, and spicy. This all-encompassing aroma is widely utilized in the perfume, tobacco, and culinary industries.
Today, Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia are the key producers of tonka beans. The United States, on the other hand, is the leading importer of tonka seeds, specifically to be used in the tobacco industry.
The ají murupí is a very productive variety from the northern regions of Brazil, often dried into powders or used in traditional sauces. It’s a few inches long and almost 3/8 inch thick. They are wrinkled and distorted and ripen to a creamy white color. If left on the plant too long they will ripen to a deeper yellow. The heat is as hot as an habanero so don’t let the mild look fool you. The Murupi Amarela plants can get up to three feet tall.
Perhaps the most unusual cocktail ingredient, lemon ants are found in large colonies in Venezuela, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, usually found in second growth rainforests in regions with an average elevation of 350 meters. As the name implies, they have a citrusy flavor that goes well in cocktails.
Ricardo Chaneton, Venezuela’s first chef to ever get a Michelin star this year, is now using products from Sabores Aborígenes. However, Stein was the first, using them since 2015 when she opened Alma.
“We’re trying to formalize the line between them and us here,” says Stein. “Venezuela is a real mess, and for them to formalize this whole thing and show it to the FDA… [but] you need about 15 permits from 15 different institutions over there, and of course, the institutions demand money which the producers don’t have. Sabores is basically just Lucia and her son-in-law supporting the indigenous communities. The money they make goes straight to the community. There’s no middleman.”
Lucía, in Puerto Ayacucho, continues to give seminars on ancestral cuisine with a special focus on social responsibility with the Amazonian communities, while Harold is the foundation’s enclave in the capital. Irena is doing her part to help the foundation as their most fervent ally in the US.
Coco y Murupí
A sweet and spicy, coconut forward and floral cocktail
1 oz Brinley Shipwreck Coconut Rum infused with murupí
1 oz Flor de Caña 7 year rum
0.75 oz safflower tea-infused syrup
0.5 oz lemon
0.5 oz lime
Shake all ingredients and pour over ice.
Murupí infused rum
Add murupí peppers to one 750ml bottle of Brinley Shipwreck Coconut Rum. Blend peppers into Brinley’s Rum and marinate overnight. Strain.
Combine 16 oz water with 16oz white granulated sugar. Heat and stir until dissolved and well combined. Add 6 grams of safflower tea and let steep for 15-20 minutes, until achieving a deep amber color. Strain. Stir in 4 oz wildflower honey.
A fruity, bittersweet, toasty riff on a fresh Trinidad Sour style cocktail
1 oz Cartavio 12 year rum infused with lemon ants
0.75 oz lemon
0.5 oz Giffard Banana liquor
0.5 oz Angostura bitters
0.5 oz toasted pumpkin seed orgeat
Venezuelan lemon ant rim with worm salt
Shake all ingredients and pour over ice in a glass rimmed with lemon ant and worm salt.
Infused Catavio rum
Combine 6 grams of dehydrated lemon ants with one 750ml bottle of Cartavio 12yr Rum. Marinate for 2 days. Strain.
Toasted pumpkin seed orgeat
Toast and lightly salt 4 oz pumpkin seeds in a pan until golden brown. Blend with 8 oz water, creating milk-like constancy. Place the pumpkin seed mixture into a pot and bring to a simmer. Add 8 oz sugar and stir to combine. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve or coffee filter.