Motacú, a Keystone Palm in the Bolivian Amazon With Culinary Potential

Photo credit: Omar Torrico

“Over the course of the week, we would visit eight communities to learn more about Bolivia’s impressively diverse range of ecosystems, foods, and cultures.”

Our organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is committed to conserving wildlife and wild places. And Bolivia is a world-class focus of this work, as our recent research in Madidi has confirmed. As Latin America urbanizes (the continent has among the highest rates of urbanization in the world, surpassing 80%), it has become clear that engaging city dwellers in efforts to conserve natural resources and wilderness is critical. What better way to do so than through the deliciousness of sustainably produced or collected food on the plate, ready to be shared with family and friends?

The road to Irimo. Photo credit: Rob Wallace.

“The culinary highlight of Irimo is the motacú palm, an essential building block of the ecology of the neighboring forest and indeed much of the southwestern Amazon in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru.”

For example, one of our favorite dishes presented small catfish, fished that morning from the little river below the village, packed into a bamboo tube with a bit of water, onion, and salt, capped with a handful of banana leaves and placed directly in a wood fire to steam for a few minutes. Uncorked, the bamboo tube was tipped into a bowl, and out slipped a delicately poached fish in a light broth.

Tuyu tuyu larvae that infest the fronds at the heart of a motacú palm tree. Photo credit: Omar Torrico

“The three species of beetle larvae that burrow into the palm tree itself are then extracted by village residents and eaten as a wonderful source of fat and protein.”

And motacú in some form is served by the Irimo community, at our count, in over a dozen different preparations. Perhaps the very definition of a super food, it is the tofu of the forest, transformed by the type of cooking preparation and by the flavors of other ingredients that accompany it in dishes. Not only that, but it turns out that nutritional analyses for motacú and other palm fruits have demonstrated that they present relatively high protein, fiber and unsaturated fat levels, as well as a host of crucial minerals for human health.

Motacú bread, fruits, seeds and tuyu tuyu. Photo credit Rob Wallace.

“That a single palm tree can provide such a diversity of delicious and nutritious food is a testament to biocultural richness of this corner of La Paz Department and the culinary creativity of its residents.”

Beyond human consumption, motacú palms provide in many other ways. Its leaves are used to thatch roofs and the dried palm fronds and fruit husks are also used for kindling. The palm flower when dried makes a useful broom for sweeping out houses. The skins of the fruit and residue from pressing, pulping or grinding the palm fruits and nuts are fed to domestic pigs.

Leco Man with Tuyu Tuyu Larvae Irimo. Photo credit Omar Torrico.

WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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