You might know manioc, the starchy tuber that fills out the diet of nearly half a billion people, by its other name: cassava. Raw manioc is indeed poisonous (it contains cyanide), but you wouldn’t guess it from the sheer ubiquity of its applications. Breads, cakes, alcohols, snacks, and condiments—South America is teeming with recipes that flout the root’s poisonous nature. Ají negro, a hot sauce that requires several days to detoxify, is one such ingenuity.
Traditionally a product of northwestern Amazonia, ají negro begins with cassava that’s been peeled, washed, diced, and left to soak in a stream for several days. A hollowed-out tree trunk is the traditional vessel for the next step, which involves pounding the cassava in the giant arboreal mortar until it becomes a pulp. Transferred to a woven sack, the pulp undergoes hours of twisting to extract the juice, which is then filtered to remove the starch and simmered for up to eight hours until it becomes dark and thick. Only then can chefs use the starch-less juice to make the hot sauce.
Toxicity removed, things become less technical, as recipes vary significantly between different groups. Along with hot peppers, ají negro can include fish, meat, ants, vegetables, flowers, and seeds. The resulting blend tends to be dark, spicy, and tangy.
The meticulously made hot sauce is in danger of disappearing from Amazonian communities, where the long preparation appeals less to the younger generation. Colombian chefs, however, have taken an interest in the preservation of these traditional recipes and ají negro is making appearances on the menus of high end restaurants like El Panoptico in Bogotá.