On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it. – Jules Renard
"What made me devote myself to this was seeing how quick the traditional ways were being lost," chef Cielo Gomez tells me over our third shot of chuchuwasa, a homemade hooch that's prepared by soaking the red bark of an Amazonian tree in sugar cane alcohol and later adding cinnamon, cloves, and wild honey to sweeten the bitter bite. It's rumored to be a potent aphrodisiac.
"The kids all want packaged foods," she continues. "And it's not really because they even like them better, but it's because of the advertising. They see all the kids on TV doing it, all the little white kids out there in the modern world, and they want to be just like them."
The child of a rich "white" upper-class family from the ultra-modern Colombian city of Medellín herself, Gomez has spent the better part of the last decade here in the Tres Fronteras region, where Colombia, Brazil, and Peru all come together in the Amazon rainforest along the banks of the mightiest river in the world.
Her restaurant El Cielo, the only real fancy dining operation of note in the town of Leticia, Colombia, has been her daily obsession for the last five years. It has earned such a strong reputation that at least a half-dozen people recommended it to me back in Bogotá, the nation's capital, in just as many months.
Impossible to reach by road from anywhere else in the country, and only accessible by boat from Peru or Brazil, Leticia is the last frontier in every sense of the word. But new cheap direct flights from Bogotá and a growing interest in the Amazon region among middle class Colombians has brought a recent boom in both domestic and international tourism to the border town—and El Cielo, which is designed in the style of an indigenous maloca, offers something completely unique for gastronomical adventurers.
"It's actually Amazon fusion because we take real indigenous dishes, like the casabe and the tucupi sauce, and we turn them into something more recognizable without losing any of the original recipes—like with our pizzas," says Gomez. She lived with several indigenous Amazon tribes for three years in order to learn recipes straight from the kitchens of grandmothers.
Casabe—a thin bread made from cassava, or yuca brava, that is ground into a flour and then baked—is usually eaten by itself in local Amazonian communities like that of the Ticuna. Gomez, however, makes casabe and then uses it as the crust for pizza, one of the restaurant's most popular offerings.
El Cielo's casabe pizzas come in nearly a dozen flavors, topped with everything from forest mushrooms to mixed seafood, relying on whatever is fresh from the local fish market that day.
Luz Dary, a locale Ticuna woman with the brightest smile ever, hand-rolls each one to order in the kitchen before topping them and getting them ready for the oven. The yuca brava definitely adds some texture and depth to the traditional pizza experience, but it was the tucupi sauce that really switched gears in the flavor department for me.
"Tucupi is the salsa that several different Amazon tribes, especially the Huitoto, use with their casabe and other daily meals," Gomez says, making a spreading gesture with her hands. "It's much like the the ají that most of South America puts on everything, except in this case it's made with ants."
Thick, rich, and tasting somewhat like a tangy curry with a peppery bite, Cielo's tucupi is hand-made by the chef herself from just three ingredients: black ají peppers, a yuca reduction, and ground-up army ants collected from the Amazon jungle by local tribes.
Tucupi is served with just about everything at El Cielo, including the delicious little canoas that use ground beef or diced-up pirarucu—a.k.a. paiche or arapaima, a giant fish that lives in the Amazon river and has a dense, rich meat—as a sort of tartare, making for excellent appetizers or light cocktail snacks.
The filling, which is blended with tucupi, is served in small tortilla-like shells made from plantains that have been smashed flat and then pan-fried after being folded into the shape of little canoes (hence the dish's name).
Ants are not the only insects that are eaten in the Amazon jungle, however; a host of bugs, from tarantulas to centipedes, often finds its way into the indigenous diet. But the most popular by far is the fat worm—actually the larvae of the palm weevil—known locally as mojojoy.
Looking like something you would find working its way through a rotting corpse, mojojoy is a favorite delicacy throughout the upper Amazon. I had tried it before in both Ecuador and Peru, where it is commonly known as suri.
"What we do with the mojojoy is a little bit different" says Gomez. "We take out the oily interior, which we actually save and give back to the indigenous communities who use it to treat asthma and other health problems, and then we stuff the little worms with new ingredients."
After first coating them with a thick layer of tucupi sauce, I sink my teeth into the mojojoy rellenos, which are stuffed with ground beef that has been cooked in the oil of the aguaje fruit till it is thick and fatty. Calling these buttery little morsels "rich" would be an understatement—they literally melt in the mouth and deeply satisfy any craving for exotic greasiness.
You don't have to sign on for an episode of Bizarre Foods to enjoy a night out at El Cielo, though. One of the chef's favorite specialties is good ol' steak and potatoes. In this case it's a dish called lomito tucupi: a quarter-kilo of free-range Amazonian beef cooked in a demi-glace sauce with mushrooms, served with a batata puree and—you guessed it—a hearty helping of Tucupi sauce.
While I have worked in some of the finest restaurants in NYC, New Orleans, and San Francisco, I have to admit that the combination of super-tender cuts of flank with the intense flavors of the tucupi sauce is one of the most succulent and savory steak experiences I have ever had.
"What I am trying to do here is not just keep these traditional recipes alive," Gomez explains to me near the end of the night, as the bottle of chuchuwasi has nearly been drained. "I am actually trying to bring them into to the mainstream, so that not only do these indigenous recipes get appreciated by urban Colombians and foreigners from around the world, but the next generation of Ticunas and Huitotos and other tribes also start to feel that their culinary heritage is as important as any other that exists."
Gomez believes that this is one of the ways to resist the cultural influences encroaching upon indigenous Amazon communities, which until recently were some of the most untouched in the world. She adds, "Of course now it's also a complete love affair, and even though my family back in Medellin has almost disowned me for moving to the jungle and leaving them behind, I feel like I am more at home than ever before."
If home is where the heart is, then it's easy to see how a big city chef could end up falling in love and then staying in the Amazon jungle. Everything here, from the humid floral night air to the orchestral sounds of the frogs in the forest, is so sensual that life seems amplified to the highest degree.
With a belly full of spicy tucupi sauce and invigorating chuchuwasi, I take my leave of the staff of El Cielo, which literally means "heaven" in Spanish. The sensory overload is so intoxicating that I can't help feeling like I have found an example of the goal of so many spiritual traditions: heaven on earth.