Monday, November 14, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Exotic - Içá

Many of the ingredients that form the backbone of Brazilian cuisine are not all that different from those found in the European or North American pantry. Wheat flour, white sugar, beef, oranges, tomatoes - all these ingredients are shared across the Equator, north and south.

Other ingredients that are indispensable in Brazil are quite unknown in the North - some, like manioc, are inherited from the native American tradition and others, such as dendê oil, came from Africa with the slaves.

One such Brazilian food, which has been appreciated in Brazil since before the arrival of Europeans in 1500, is an exotic protein called içá or tanajura. The scientific name for this little animal is Atta sexdens and it a member of an class of animals that is not even considered to be comestible by most North Americans or Europeans- insects.

In English Atta sexdens  is known as a leafcutter ant and it is only one of the many species of these highly-social ants that farm fungus on bits of leaves that they have collect and bring back to their colony. In parts of Brazil these colonies grow to tremendous size, with up to 8 million workers in a single colony.

roasted içá abdomens
As a source of food, Brazilians are very specific about what is edible and what isn't when it comes to the içá. They don't just help themselves to handfuls of fried worker ants, like Thais love to do. They are much more picky. In early summer (right now in Brazil) içá colonies release thousands of winged females whose task is to reproduce, create new colonies and thus ensure the survival of the species. These females are larger than normal ants in the colony and their third segment, the abdomen, is enlarged and full of nutrients. It is this abdomen, popularly called the ant's "ass" in Portuguese (bundinha), that is the insect caviar that many Brazilians love.

In areas such as the Vale do Paraíba, located between the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, when the female ants take flight they are chased after and caught by children and adolescents, who either give them to their families for home eating or sell for up to R$20 (USD $12) per kilo. Each ant is carefully prepared for eating by removing and discarding everything except for the round abdomen.

Once separated the abdomens are roasted and then used in a number of dishes. The most common is called farofa de içá, and just in case readers of Flavors of Brazil want to catch some flying ants next summer so they can serve sometime completely exotic to their family or friends, we'll provide a recipe for this dish in our next post on this blog.

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