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Paiche, “Cod from Amazonia”, is Big in Brazil, and Around the World

Submitted by on June 29, 2012 – 8:35 pm 2 Comments |  
Paiche, an increasingly rare fish native to the Amazon, is attracting much attention in Brazil and abroad, with new plans to develop commercial farming and processing facilities in the Brazilian state of Rondônia for domestic consumption and export to world-wide markets. Also known by its native Amazonian name pirarucu and by the scientific term arapaima (Arapaima gigas),. paiche is considered to be a living fossil. It is also one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world, reaching lengths of more than 6.5 feet (2 meters). A mature arapaima can be weigh over 220 lbs (100 kg) and can yield up to 155 lbs (70 kg) of flesh. Because it contains high levels of collagen, Paiche develops a delicious crust when cooked, preserving its soft, delicate texture and distinctive flavor, characterized by chefs as “sweet”, “subtle”, and “elegant”, comparable to that of the Chilean sea bass, another endangered South American fish species. Paiche can be grilled, baked, pan seared, or smoked, but the traditional preparation involves salting and drying in the manner of traditional salted cod (known in Portuguese as bacalhau and in Spanish as bacalao), earning this fish the nickname of “Cod from Amazonia”. At the height of commercial fishing in the early 20th century, some 7,000 tons were taken a year, leading to severe depletion of the species. As a result, the Brazilian government banned commercial fishing, allowing only catch-and-release and harvesting-for-consumption by native “ribeirinhos” (as Brazilians call those living on the riverbanks).

In recent months, however, the Brazilian Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture along with the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources agreed to launch a pilot project to allow arapaima farming and exportation. The first state chosen to participate in this initiative is Rondônia, which has already developed a small arapaima farming sector. Nearly fifty producers in the state currently have over a thousand specimens in their facilities. Biologists employed by these farms seek to ensure sustainable breeding and growing practices. Measures are also being taken to prevent illegal fishing. The initiative is expected to be extended to other Brazilian states, but for now companies from elsewhere in the country are moving to Rondônia in order to take advantage of this business opportunity, as arapaima farming is said to generate up to twenty times greater annual profit than cattle production per unit of area. Commercialization of paiche will also help generate abundant new jobs for locals and raise the value of the fish: while in earlier years a fisherman could expect to earn about 3 Brazilian reals (US$1.5) per kilo of fresh fish, the price has recently nearly doubled. Brazilian officials expect success for the new industry, given that Brazil is the world’s second largest cod consumer, following only Portugal.

But paiche arouses interest not only in Brazil, but also in Japanese, European, and American markets. Promotional events took place at the recent Rio+20 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilian chefs Felipe Schaedler and Ana Castilho prepared a special tasting menu based on “Cod from Amazonia”. Other noted chefs have introduced paiche into their culinary vocabularies, including such global heavyweights as the pioneer of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adrià, and Nobu Matsuhisa, of the acclaimed Matsuhisa and Nobu restaurants, known for his fusion cuisine blending traditional Japanese dishes with South American (especially Peruvian) ingredients. In a recent Food Network Iron Chef competition, Masaharu Morimoto prepared several paiche dishes (see the image). Some U.S. restaurants have added paiche to their menus, including recently reopened Peruvian restaurant Mo-Chica in downtown Los Angeles, which serves it with ajiaco de arroz, a sort of stew, and cherry tomato escabeche. Yolo (You Only Live Once) Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, also serves a daily special made from paiche. Customers pay $16 for a paiche dish at Mo-Chica and around $25 at Yolo. Those who want to cook their own paiche can purchase it online through ArtisanFish.com.

Flesh is not the only part of the arapaima utilized by native Amazonian peoples. The tongue is thought to have medicinal qualities, especially for killing intestinal worms. For this purpose, it is dried and combined with guarana bark and water. The bony scales have been traditionally used as nail files. Arapaima scales are also attracting attention of experts in biomimetics, the study of useful materials from living organisms and the processes that produce them. The intricate arapaima scales serve as “peace through strength”, allowing the fish to coexist with piranha when the two species are crowded into Amazonian backwater lakes during the dry season. A recently published study in The Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials, suggests that the toughness of arapaima scales comes from the combination of a hard mineralized layer on the outside and a much softer layer of collagen fibers stacked in alternating directions like a pile of plywood (see image). The corrugated surface keeps the scales’ thick mineralized surfaces intact while the fish flexes as it swims. These intricately constructed scales provide “bioinspiration” for engineers looking to develop flexible ceramics and stronger forms of armor.

 

 

 

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  • Frederico Freitas

    Do you know where the word “paiche” comes from? I am from Brazil and the first time I read it was in your article. There, as you said, it is called “pirarucu.” (I googled both words, and pirarucu is ten times more common). I am just curious, specially because it sounds like “peixe” (“fish” in portuguese)…

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Good question. I am not sure what the etymology of this name is. I am not surprised, however, that this fish has several names, which is very often the case with fish taxonomy. Paiche seems to be the name most widely used in English in the culinary domain. Arapaima seems to be a more technical term, used in engineering, biology and the like. Pirarucu doesn’t seem to be widely used in English.