EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Inside the Amazon with Sushi Samba’s executive head chef Cláudio Cardoso

LONG READ

There’s only one place in the whole of the UK you can sample coffee and chocolate produced by the Asháninka, indigenous to the Peruvian rainforest – London’s Sushi Samba. Executive head chef Cláudio Cardoso treks from the City’s concrete jungle to the heart of the Amazon to meet the people behind the produce with charity Cool Earth, to find out more about how their unique relationship helps to protect the tribe and the rainforest…

Until last month, I was one of the few ‘foodies’ in London to have never stepped inside Sushi Samba. Tempted though I was by its decadent menu and notorious party nights, with not even a nod to sustainability on its website, I assumed it wasn’t for me.

Then I received an email about a new sustainable menu inspired by the executive head chef’s trip to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest and met chef Cardoso who told me: “It cannot only be about your restaurant and yourself. It has to be something bigger.”

Then I realised I had assumed wrong.

THE JOURNEY

Cardoso was invited to travel to the depths of the rainforest with Cool Earth, who set up the relationship between him and the Asháninka producers, to learn more about how they protect the rainforest by empowering the indigenous communities that live inside it.

“It’s not just about saving the rainforest, it’s more about bringing awareness about the people who live there and creating conditions for them to have longevity. With the indigenous people there, the rainforest will be safe,”  Cardoso explains.

They flew to Lima and then to the Andes, before driving for eight hours – “too fast for my liking” – to Satipo on the edge of the rainforest. From here, a nine-hour boat ride followed by daily treks of six to eight hours brought Cardoso to meet the Asháninka people of Peru.

THE ENE VALLEY

The Asháninka live in the Ene Valley, one of the world’s most at-risk areas, due to illegal logging and cocaine plantations destroying the forest.

Around 2,960 Asháninka live in the area, in small villages of about 50 people, made up of around 15 families.

The villages are arranged in a kind of circle, each around a three hour walk from the main village that sits in the centre. Only the central village has communication to the outside world – and only via radio.

THE TRIBE

There used to be more Asháninka, but many were slaughtered by The Shining Path communist militant group in the 1980s.

As a consequence they are now a fairly young tribe. Each village has a leader who is rotated every four years, which gives the younger members responsibility and helps them to grow.

Gender roles are fairly traditionally split in the communities, the men build the houses, climb trees for fruit and occasionally go hunting, while the women look after the children, fires and cooking.

“There’s a lot of respect towards the women and the children, you can see that,” says Cardoso.

The Asháninka also have huge respect for the environment and are reluctant to cut down trees, always replanting one if they are forced to do so.

It’s this attitude that Cardoso finds so humbling.

“We have more access to more resources and information but they have beautiful things we don’t,” says Cardoso. “They don’t count time, so they don’t know how old they are. They don’t put a lot of pressure on themselves.

“They don’t say ‘thank you’ or ‘please’ because they assume it’s an exchange, you do something for me and I do something for you.

“That’s what I think we are missing in our culture.”

THE FOOD

Although Peruvian cuisine is well renowned for its variety of flavours, meals deep in the rainforest where anything other than what’s immediately to hand, are very simple.

The Asháninka diet pretty much consists of sweet potato and yuca (cassava), which they also mix together to make an alcoholic drink Massato (above). Seasonal fruit such as mangoes, banana, plantain, also feature. This is supplemented by whatever they can forage – berries, mushrooms, maggots and insects – or find when hunting and fishing.

Everything is boiled or wrapped in banana leaves and cooked directly in the fire.

“They’re not proud of their food, they eat to survive,” explains Cardoso. “They don’t even wait for it to cook properly – they’re very impatient, they just want to eat now.”

When teaching the Asháninka women how to purify the muddy waters of the Amazon they cook with, chef Cardoso couldn’t help but add in a few cooking tips – such as the rewards of patience and seasoning vegetables with lime and salt. He even taught the women how to make chocolate milk for their children using powdered milk Cool Earth brought with them and cocoa, which the Asháninka now farm.

The charity also introduced chicken to their diet. However, this was a steep learning curve as after the first year all the chickens were gone. Nobody had taught the Asháninka how to utilise the eggs, rotate the chickens – and not to eat them all at once.

THE FIGHT AGAINST LOGGERS

The men take responsibility for the agriculture, which provides food and a new revenue stream for the tribe.This is important because their way of life is in danger – mainly from loggers.

“On the outskirts of the Amazon a lot of trees are already being cut down, and too many roads being built. That means people are getting closer to the tribes,” says Cardoso.

Producing their own revenue means they are not forced to succumb to the loggers who offer them a pitiful amount of cash (around £200) for a tree that’s upwards of 150 years old and worth anywhere up to £200,000, such as the Mahogany tree pictured above.

All money is held centrally and the community decides how to spend it. In a twist of fate, the president of one such group, a man called Huber, was once a logger. Cardoso tells the story of a movie-style romance where Huber fell in love with an Asháninka girl, who is now his wife and the mother of his children. Today, he plays a key role in spotting the tracks and tricks of loggers.


THE OUTCOME: SUSTAINABLE STYLE

Cardoso is now fully involved with Cool Earth, helping to write nutrition plans and sourcing as many ingredients as he can to use in Sushi Samba, such as the Welcome To The Rainforest dessert, pictured above.

Our conversation weaves from the practicalities of importing ingredients from the Amazon to where Cardoso sources his other ingredients – he makes a point of visiting every supplier to make sure they’re up to his standards – to the street-style paint on the restaurant walls, done by himself and artist FLIP from São Paulo, using eco-paint spray Montana.

When I ask him why he doesn’t advertise any of these noteworthy credentials on his website he says: “It’s bringing awareness to the right people… the people that are interested will know what we’re doing, they’ll have questions and they’ll get involved as well.”

I’m glad I eventually asked. Sushi Samba has gone through a few incarnations since its inception, and it’s no doubt a destination restaurant for City workers with deep pockets.

But don’t just judge a restaurant by its covers. Sushi Samba may reach dizzying heights, but under the direction of Chef Claudio, its inspired cuisine is rooted firmly in the ground.

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