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Patricia Pérez, propietaria de La Atacameña. Photo: El Dínamo.
Patricia Pérez, owner of La Atacameña. Photo: El Dínamo.

The indigenous herbalist who brought back ancestry to Chilean cuisine

Patricia Perez, the owner of La Atacameña, combed the desert for rare plants and sold them to the best chefs in Latin America.

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In the Atacama Desert in Chile, an inhospitable and wild place of silent beauty, the indigenous herbalist Patricia Pérez works diligently collecting rare plants and fodder herbs unknown for many, and that the best chefs in Latin America use to season their dishes. 

Her company, La Atacameña, is dedicated to preserving the millennia-old indigenous traditions of the Lickanantai nation. She does so from Toconao, a 12,000-year-old village about 30 miles from San Pedro de Atacama where Narratively journalist Megan Giller traveled. 

There are many people in the area who use the fodder from La Atacameña in their stews, typical products, and even soaps. Mark Gerrits, the owner of Santiago's bean brand ÓBOLO Chocolate, does it, and so does the capital's prestigious restaurant El Boragó, one of the best restaurants in the world.

Patricia feeds herself as her ancestors did, with the product and the condiments that give the Atacama slimy soil its color. She learned to look for food from her grandmother, who took her to collect plants in a very precise and respectful way with nature, avoiding to pull out everything, and replanting whatever she could not use. 

"I learned that you must take care of everything the earth gives you," Perez tells Megan Giller. "What we collect is from our land, our environment, our people."

Keeping tradition alive

The harvest season lasts about five months and during that time Patricia Perez treks around the desert and prunes the plants, watering them if necessary and even talking to them. She also collects the garbage that people throw away: "I am a defender of nature," she adds. 

Her grandmother left the collector an old drawn map marked with all the places where she can find the best plants. She follows the coordinates and when she arrives at the marked site, she honors the land with a ritual led by a shaman that includes coca leaves and wine.

Patricia is one of the few people in Toconao who feed off the community's land and has a sustainable and legitimate business based on these native plants since for both Chileans and tourists the collection of local plants is prohibited. Sometimes the herbalist even has to ask permission from local tribes before looking for food on their land. 

The idea to set up La Atacameña came, she says, after a meeting with the well-known chef and owner of Boragó, Rodolfo Guzmán, who discovered Patricia Pérez at a local fair and bought some of her herbs to season his dishes. From then on, many chefs on the continent followed the same path. 

Thanks to the work of the woman who knows most about herbs in the Atacama, the way of life of her ancestors is kept alive. It's part of their destiny, she says. 

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