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Special Feature: King of the Amazon

Sustainable farming initiative brings the river giant paiche to U.S. diners

By Melissa Wood
February 01, 2013

Tell diners a giant river monster is on the menu and they’ll want to see what it looks like. Fortunately, for the chef introducing little-known paiche, most people have a smartphone handy.

“A lot of people bring out their cell phones and Google it right then and there. It’s a very interesting looking fish too,” says Andrew Adams, executive chef for Acre Restaurant in Memphis, Tenn.

Paiche, also called arapaima or pirarucu (Arapaima gigas), is a freshwater fish native to the Amazon Basin. It has a face that looks more like a bird than a fish, and it is a giant. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) they can grow to be as big as 450 pounds and 9 feet long.

But the real monsters in paiche’s history have been humans, who once severely overfished wild populations. Now a sustainable farming initiative is trying to restore it in the wild while introducing it to consumers around the world.

“I don’t want to use some cheesy slogan, but it’s considered the king of the Amazon,” says Adrian Burstein of ArtisanFish in Aventura, Fla. The company is marketing and wholesaling the farmed fish to U.S. retail and foodservice buyers.  

Its size is not the only thing that makes paiche special; it also breathes air. Because of low oxygen levels in the Amazon floodplains, paiche developed an enlarged swim bladder in addition to gills. Paiche must come up for air every 10 to 20 minutes and while it’s on the surface may also snatch a bird off the riverbank. But close proximity to the surface brought it closer to human hunters. It was listed as a threatened species on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1975. 

The ability to breathe air also makes it attractive for fish farmers because they can raise it in water with low oxygen levels. According to FAO, paiche is especially well-suited for farming among South America’s freshwater species. It has the fastest growth rate among cultivated Amazon fish, will eat fish-feed pellets even though it’s carnivorous and has fillets that don’t have intramuscular bones. 

The farmed paiche initiative, which is in Peru and called the Amazone project, started almost six years ago. Burstein says the project began with extensive research focused on developing feed and selecting the best subspecies in terms of meat quality.

“We also release some of our paiche on the Amazon so that we can help repopulate it,” Burstein adds. “Hopefully in a few decades we will have a success story.”

The farmed paiche, which are fed pellets made of soy and a small amount of fishmeal, take about 18 months to grow to a harvestable size of 22 pounds. They are raised in a low-density environment in ponds.

“I want to describe it almost as an ecosystem in itself,” says Burstein. “The water in the farm is filtered by a natural digester. It’s an area like a small swamp where the water flows through and the vegetation in the area cleans up the water.”

The farms produce about 100,000 pounds a year. Burstein says the United States is one of the biggest markets. Exports also go to France and there are potential markets in the United Kingdom, Spain and Chile. 

One challenge with introducing the species is the long approval process for importation due to its CITES status, despite the fact that it’s farmed. Paiche should soon be available in Canada, where it was approved for importation just a few months ago, says Burstein. 

Since first coming to the United States two and half years ago, paiche has only been sold in restaurants. Wholesale prices began at around $16 to $18 a pound for chefs, but have since lowered to around $12 a pound because of increases in volume. 

On the retail side, Burstein is in negotiations with a major chain and hopes that it will be in stores this year.

“I think it will be a very good thing for retailers because I consider paiche a dummy-proof fish,” he says. Paiche has a high amount of collagen, meaning that it is firm but also moist. “A lot of people are afraid to actually make fish at home — it gets burned easily, it gets stuck in the pan. That doesn’t happen with paiche.”

Name recognition is another challenge for paiche. 

“It’s been a tremendous challenge and effort introducing the fish to the point that it really shows you the resistance to change the industry has,” says Burstein. “Distributors would not do the work. They wanted chefs to order the fish so we’ve been taking the battle to the chefs.”

He has seen paiche gain the most ground after a certain type of chef embraces it.

“The paiche works best when you have a chef that is truly a leader — the kind of chef that goes in the dining room and mingles with the customers,” he says.

Adams says that Acre, which he runs with renowned Southern chef Wally Joe, first introduced paiche last July. 

“We were asking our fish supplier what he had that would be a good thing to eat, and he said paiche was just coming on to the market and it would be 100 percent farm raised,” he says. 

At first Adams didn’t realize paiche had a strange bone structure and cut into it the wrong way. That first time he decided to pan sear it with just olive oil and salt and see what happened.

“The first thing I noticed, unlike any other fish I’ve seen before, it naturally develops this crust on the outside — almost like crackling, almost like tempura. This thin sheet of crust forms around the fish, which adds this great texture,” he says. 

Its firmness allows it to be cooked a number of different ways, including grilled, pan-seared, fried, poached or baked. It’s versatile for preparation too. 

“It can go with a light dish, like a salad, but [with stronger flavors] it’s not overpowered because it’s rich and meaty,” he says. 

He has put it on the menu pan-seared on top of a Columbian sonchoco (fish stew) cooked down with a little yucca and plantains to which he added coconut milk, and served with cape beans and chanterelle mushrooms for $29. 

He has also served it on top of a Vietnamese green papaya salad for $28. The paiche is first brined in a salt water solution for a couple hours, sous-vide for about 30 minutes then grilled to give it a little bit of a smoky flavor.

The dishes have been favorites among diners at Acre Restaurant, who tend to be on the adventurous side.

“It is tough to sell something exotic and new,” says Adams. “We do have a lot of customers who are interested in anything we put on the table. What we do is we explain how it’s similar to Chilean sea bass and black cod, and everybody can relate to those two. They listen to us, and they go for it.” 

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 

 

Find other SeaFood Business articles with paiche here.

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