By Thin Lei Win
ROME, Dec 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ferns that taste like asparagus when sautéed in olive oil and salt. Leaves with the flavour of garlic. A black, spicy sauce derived from bitter manioc root to go with paiche, a giant Amazonian fish.
If the special tasting menu at a restaurant in Ecuador's capital Quito reads like a walk through the Amazonian rainforest, that is exactly the point.
"See the beauty, the smell, the colours of the Amazon through the incredible flavours that you can taste!" said Marta Echavarria, co-founder of Quito-based Canopy Bridge.
The non-profit network connects indigenous farmers with buyers and provided many of the ingredients on the menu at Quito's Patria restaurant.
"Instead of telling you all the horrible things and how we're losing forests, we want to send a different message. We really want people to taste conservation, taste biodiversity, in a very emotional way," Echavarria said in a phone interview.
Ecuadorian chef Mauricio Acuña, who created the menu with Kamilla Seidler, crowned Latin America's Best Female Chef in 2016, is a supporter of the "rainforest to table" movement showcasing Amazon flavours in the region's top restaurants.
By capitalising on growing consumer demand for healthy, local and novel food, the network of chefs, food companies and conservationists hopes to protect the forests, boost the income of indigenous farmers and encourage food diversity.
It is being promoted by Canopy Bridge, renowned Lima-based restaurant Amaz and U.S.-based environmental groups Wildlife Conservation Society and Forest Trends.
For Acuña, trained in Spain and France, it is also about national identity in a country where culinary traditions have been overshadowed by better-known neighbours Peru and Brazil.
"In Ecuador, chefs don't use local ingredients... And it's like (I have to) fight with clients on why I use them," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Quito.
"If we lose these ingredients, we lose our culture, our identity," said Acuña, who runs several restaurants, a gastronomy research centre and an annual culinary festival.
BIODIVERSITY UNDER THREAT
Ecuador may be smaller than the state of Nevada but it is one of the world's most biodiverse nations, boasting the Amazon rainforest, Andean mountains and the Galapagos Islands.
It is home to 18 percent of the world's bird species and orchids, 10 percent of the world's amphibians, and 8 percent of the world's mammals, according to studies.
This biodiversity is under threat from oil exploration, agriculture, mining and poverty, environmentalists say.
In September 2016, Ecuador's state-oil company Petroamazonas began drilling for oil in the Yasuni National Park despite opposition from environmentalists, saying it would ensure minimum environmental impact.
The Amazon, the world's largest tropical rainforest, soaks up vast amounts of carbon and is seen as vital to the fight against climate change.
While deforestation rates in the Amazon have declined over the last decade, the felling of trees continues at an alarming rate, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has said.
One way to lessen the pressure on forests and natural resources is to improve farmers' incomes, said John Preissing, country representative in Ecuador for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In Ecuador, two out of 10 people are considered poor in cities, but in rural areas, the number jumps to six out of 10 and food insecurity is higher, Preissing said.
The FAO is working with cocoa farmers in the northern province of Napo to help them make higher-value products such as chocolate and help them preserve tropical forests, he added.
Canopy Bridge works with two indigenous groups - the Ai-Kofan and the Kichwa - and have been delivering weekly fresh produce to around 15 restaurants for the past year.
About 750 people are benefiting from the project, with the monthly communal income of around $400 going towards paying for expenses such as electricity for community radio stations and school uniforms for the children, Echavarria said.
ZERO KM CUISINE
The concept of using indigenous ingredients and promoting local farmers and food traditions is not new. The Slow Food movement, founded in northern Italy over three decades ago, pioneered it.
In Italy and Spain, there are now restaurants championing "zero kilometre" cuisine, where food is sourced as close to the establishment as possible.
"We really believe industrial food production is one of the main causes of a lot of problems that our planet is facing," including climate change, health problems, and soil losing fertility, said Paolo Di Croce.
The Secretary General of Slow Food International told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that local, high-quality produce can preserve biodiversity, improve human and environmental health, and provide sustainable livelihoods for food producers.
Slow Food's "Ark of Taste" catalogue lists indigenous foods that are at risk of disappearing, including 33 from Ecuador and works with leading chefs in the country, including Acuña, to use them.
Canopy Bridge, meanwhile, is looking to expand into more communities in Ecuador, said Echavarria. The project faces challenges, including working with indigenous communities whose lifestyles are far removed from the demands of the urban market.
"If they have other activities, if they're going off into the forest, (they think), 'Ah maybe delivery doesn't have to be done this week'. So it's complicated," she said, laughing.
And not every community may be able to bring their produce to restaurants.
"Very few indigenous communities have been able to take their produce to the market," said Juan Calles Lopez, a consultant with the FAO.
"Most of the produce and the biodiversity is for community use and sometimes it's difficult to grow them in a way that's needed to make them commercially viable."
(Reporting By Thin Lei Win, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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