Cuisine from the Amazon

Diego Gallegos
Diego Gallegos / SUR
  • Diego Gallegos teaches us that Brazilian food is delicious and talks about tastes, products and recipes

Sometimes, even without intending to, people end up going back to their origins. In the case of Diego Gallegos, who has just retained his Michelin star for his sustainable cuisine based on freshwater fish and home-grown vegetables at the Sollo restaurant (Reserva del Higuerón, Fuengirola), it seemed quite natural to link his food with the fluvial world. However it also led him back to the river of all rivers, the biggest on the planet, which flows through the territory and the soul of his country of birth, Brazil.

Coming from this green country not only gave him a full understanding of fish that are little-known here, such as tilapia and bagre ("it's river chicken, and people eat it two or three times a week," he says), but enables him to call on his memory of flavours for dressings, preparations and garnishes, which he adapts with the use of local and Mediterranean ingredients.

Now, the culinary culture of his youth (although Gallegos lived in Sao Paulo until he was 18, his mother's family is from Peru) is enhancing his reputation, not only through his research in Sollo's own laboratory, but also through the menu at Arara, his bistro beside the restaurant at the Hilton Doubletree hotel at La Reserva del Higuerón.

Named after the national bird of Brasil, a yellow-green macaw in danger of extinction, Arara has always served cosmopolitan fare, but from now on Brazil will be playing a bigger role.

"Brazilian cuisine hasn't had the luck of being acclaimed as the Peruvian gastronomy has, but it is as wonderful as the country is. A wealth of products, preparations and influences. However, most of the haute cuisine there is French. There are still very few chefs who go back to their roots.

"At Sollo we are doing that because, although it is not our exclusive theme, you have to talk about what it is. At present we are working on fermentations, which we do with guarapo, sugar cane juice. We use manual presses for that. We also use other Brazilian vegetables and fruits which are sometimes hard to find here," says Gallegos.

At Arara there are more common Brazilian flavours, but what is this type of cuisine like?

"Very varied, in terms of products, geography and influences," says the chef. "There are some national dishes like feijoada, rice with refried beans, which they eat there in the same way we eat bread here; flours, starches and semolinas made with corn and cassava; barbecued meats, which are predominantly eaten inland; and moquecas, fish stew which is eaten all along the coast. But then there is a huge variety of influences such as Japanese, Italian and German cuisine, in Sao Paulo; African in the Bay, Antillean... and there are native products which also mark the cuisine," he adds.

In Brazil a lot of palm oils are used, not the ones that are frowned upon here, but natural oils which give a lot of flavour such as dendé, as well as vegetables that are practically unknown here such as chayote or okra, tropical fruits, coconut and coconut milk...

"There is a basic flavour which, when you taste it, takes you straight to Brazil," says Gallegos. It is the mixture of crushed salt with garlic and coriander, and the first thing he puts into a pot when making a stew. "That and bacon," he explains.

He is fascinated by moquecas, a fish stew with onion, chilli, tomato, coriander and malagueta pepper. In the north, it also has dendé and coconut milk. It has featured on the most recent menus at Sollo.

However, the childlike side to this chef comes out in his fondness for 'petiscos', tapas or canapés sold cheaply as street food, such as cheese bread, made with cassava flour and a touch of parmesan. "Cheese bread with a good butter or jam... that's heaven," he says. Or the coxinhas, fried pastry filled with shredded chicken, a dish that Brazil shares with Portugal.

"These are the things we want to recover at Arara - simple but very delicious and authentic dishes. I believe this is the time to highlight Brazilian cooking," he says. Amen to that.