My first encounter with paiche (aka Arapaima gigas, arapaima, or pirarucu), an enormous fish found swimming in the waters of the Amazon Basin, was not a pleasant one. While waiting for two weeks on the border of Peru and Ecuador for a boat to take me to Iquitos, the family whose house I had tied my hammock had caught massive “blankets” of some anonymous white fish salted and hanging to dry off the back porch. The smell of the fish in that heat was not pleasant, nor was any further help when the paiche was sold to the crowded riverboat that I would be traveling on for the next five days.
Though we got off to a bad start, I have learned to love paiche. While wild caught versions of the fish are a threat to the fish, the recent growth of farm-raised paiche could perhaps save the species. In 2006, a group of Peruvian businessmen created the Amazone Project, which began to develop the sustainable farming of paiche, the only farm-raised paiche availble, and in 2011 it began to appear on the menus of adventurous chefs in the United States. The Amazone Project, based in Iquitos, does not use hormones, does not use sex reversion, does not use breeding systems with densities that stress the fish and thus avoids the use of antibiotics or immune stimulant substances. The farms are located in areas free of contamination and that do not require massive deforestation.
Growing to almost 500 pounds, paiche is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. It lives in the shallow, muddy waters of riverbeds in the Amazon basin, only rising every 15 to 20 minutes for air. Marine scientists consider the paiche to be a direct link to the Jurassic period. The quantity of protein in muscle is rather high, 20% weigh-weigh. Every 100 grams of meat provide 20 grams of protein. It contains a lower fat percentage compared to other white meat species, such as the Black Cod or Chilean Seabass.
The flavor of the firm, white-fleshed paiche is remarkably similar to the Chilean Sea Bass, also endangered. It contains high levels of collagen, which helps it develop a nice crust when it is cooked. It is often sold in thick steak like cuts, which can withstand higher cooking temperatures and still maintain a moist flesh. It’s ideal for grilling, pan searing, smoking, or in ceviche. The fish has no traces of mercury or other heavy metals commonly found in some fish of comparable size.
The Amazone paiche brand complies with Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations, which ensures the purchase of legally traded paiche and prevents commercial exports of endangered wild paiche, which is banned in Brazil. While paiche is not quite yet appearing in your local supermarkets, it is becoming more common. Paiche has begun appearing on menus in New York City such as Sushi Samba and La Mar, as well as several in Miami, such as Palme d’Or, Area 31, Sushi Samba, and Meat Market, and San Francisco’s La Mar. The importer Artisan Fish lists the increasing number of restaurants and markets that stock the fish.
Want to buy paiche? Contact www.artisanfish.com.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.