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The Panama chef using rainforest ingredients to transform fine dining

Chef Mario Castrellón is using ingredients native to the region in his fine dining menus, making sure they’re sustainably sourced from indigenous farmers

1024.jpgAt a fine dining restaurant in Panama City, customers are tucking into kalalu, a tropical fern with an earthy flavour, blanched like an asparagus, and brushed with olive oil and grilled. Next on the menu; boda, a palm flower that looks and tastes like baby corn, pickled and wrapped in banana leaf tamale-style.

From wild red rice grown in the isolated Darién province, to the flor eléctrica herb on the slopes of the country’s tallest volcano, unusual rainforest plants are a critical part of the menu for 33-year-old Panamanian chef and restaurateur Mario Castrellón. His restaurant Maito has undertaken the mission of exploring Panamanian biodiversity, while also bringing indigenous and traditional ingredients to the fine dining scene. While Panama City’s most popular restaurants were serving Italian pastas and Peruvian ceviches, Castrellón has been incorporating pixbae, a starchy peach palm fruit, and ñame, a root vegetable, into his menu at Maito.

Amazingly, it has worked. In fact his success has been such that last year Maito became the first Panamanian restaurant to enter the prestigious Latin America’s 50 best restaurant list. He has not only managed to “open the doors” for other chefs, as one restaurateur, José Olmedo Carles of Panama City’s Donde José put it, but he is trying to change the way high class restaurants source their ingredients from indigenous farmers.

“It was hard for [other chefs] to understand what he was doing, but he never gave up,” says Olmedo Carles. “Now there are a lot of us working with these kinds of ingredients.”

Castrellón’s mission has become the spark for, and a huge part of a growing “rainforest to table” movement across Latin America, exploring how the forest’s myriad ingredients can be sourced sustainably and benefit the indigenous communities. In Peru, the chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino sources a fermented yuca paste called ají negro from a Bora community in the Amazon for his restaurants, which has transformed their economy. In Bolivia, the restaurant Gustu is working with the Wildlife Conservation Society to help Tacana hunters earn an income by sustainably harvesting the meat and selling the skin (to Gucci, no less) of caimans.

1000.jpgAs Castrellón started to work with Panama’s flora and fauna to develop his menus, he found that indigenous farmers were losing out in the production and distribution process: much of the produce was lost or sold at low prices because of improper distribution channels. Intermediaries would take most of the profits by the time the produce reached his restaurants, and the farmers saw little revenue.

“The indigenous people are always left behind or looked down upon,” says Castrellón. “From my point of view they are the real owners of this country. They have survived here without using up all of the natural resources. I just want to help empower them so they can live better lives.”

Since 2013 Castrellón has been working with NGO Nutre Hogar who are engaged in a project to help prevent child malnutrition in Ngäbe-Buglé comarca, a territory in the highlands of Boquete, near the Costa Rica border. It is one of three indigenous provinces in Panama. The NGO approached him after he tweeted his frustration at the “middleman” situation, and suggested that he could buy directly from micro-producers. The NGO works with Castrellón’s restaurant group in a programme where he purchases, at fair prices, whatever extra crops are being grown or collected, eliminating the middlemen and keeping profits in the community.

Much of the project revolves around the overproduce, the surplus crops, grown by 450 families in the mountainous districts of Nole Duima and Ñurum within the territory that are not used for feeding themselves.

Growing organic greens, herbs and fruits, as well as more sustainable farming practices has all been part of Nutre Hogar’s teaching practice, as well as collecting indigenous rainforest plants like kalalu and boda that are now popular in Panama City’s growing set of locavore restaurants. This is especially important in a country that has some of the highest malnutrition rates among indigenous communities across the region, with 19% of indigenous children facing chronic malnutrition, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

“It’s a group effort,” says Castrellón. “Through Nutre Hogar they get them the tools and energy to make it happen. For me it is an honour to have their produce in the city and show Panama and the world how lucky we are to have these organic, natural and unique products.”

1280.jpgWhile families in the area typically live on US$26 (£21) a month, many of those who are working with Nutre Hogar have seen their incomes jump to as much as $150 (£123) a week. So far the programme has been effective and is expanding: Castrellón has supplied recipes to a solar powered bakery in the community of Kankintú, another area where Nutre Hogar is working. These recipes are based on using the overproduce to bake bread made with yuca (a root vegetable) or flavoured with cilantro (coriander).

“It was a great help he gave me and my family,” says Margarita Arias, one of the 19 women who run the bakery. She credits it for changing her economic situation. “Before I had nothing – no money; every month coming up short.”

As roads are poor within the territory, consistent deliveries of produce to Panama City and Castrellón’s restaurants can be an issue. “I was recently supposed to get an order of produce, but because of rain in the mountains it hasn’t come for two weeks,” he says. He prepares for lags in deliveries by buying more than he needs when it’s available or pickling some of the plants so they can be preserved.

A few years ago it was almost impossible to find Panama’s native flora and fauna in restaurants. Since Maito came along other restaurants have been inspired to do the same, like Intimo in Panama City, Panga on the Azuero Peninsula and Receta Michilá in Bocas del Toro. As the interest in native foods has developed, so has the work with indigenous groups, who hold the knowledge of the native ingredients.

“The organic products market in Panama is now very big,” says Vanessa Vicuña, the executive director of Nutre Hogar. “We are hoping to add many more families to be able to supply to bigger brands that are now interested in these products.”



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