Thursday, January 19, 2012

How is Paiche Cooked?

The paiche, also known as arapaima or pararucu in its Amazonian homeland, is an interesting and unusual fish. Sometimes referred to as a "living fossil," it is a surviving example of a class of primitive bony-tongued fish that were common in the Jurassic era. Its most unusual characteristic is that it is an air breather, surfacing every 10 to 20 minutes to inhale. Paiche are protected now in the Amazon basin, but sustainably farmed paiche can be found at upscale fishmongers. The flesh is firm and delicate in flavor, rivaling black cod and Chilean sea bass in quality.

About Paiche

Paiche are among the very largest of freshwater fish, reportedly up to 10 feet in length and weighing over 400 pounds. Amazonian natives use their tongues as graters, and fashion their large scales into jewelry. The fish have few bones, and a 200 pound specimen will yield 140 pounds of usable meat. It can be cut into large steaks, fillets or thick meaty "loins" similar in size and shape to a pork loin. The flesh is pale and mild in flavor, containing 20 percent protein by weight. It's also high in collagen, which keeps it moist in high temperature cooking.


Like other oversized predators including tuna and swordfish, paiche has a firm flesh that works well on the grill. Unlike those other species, however, farmed paiche is free of both mercury contamination and concerns about sustainability. Its flesh is also leaner and more delicate, but the high collagen content holds it together on the grill and prevents it from becoming dry. Paiche steaks can be marinated and grilled in the same way as a swordfish or tuna steak. Thicker loin pieces can be glazed or spice-crusted and cooked on the cooler part of the grill, then finished at high heat to form a crust.

Pan-Searing and Frying

Paiche's ability to form a crisp yet delicate crust is a characteristic many chefs exploit by pan-searing a thick cut. In this method the chef marinates or encrusts a thick portion of paiche loin or belly, then presses it into a very hot pan. The paiche becomes golden and crisp on each side as it's turned, and then is finished at lower heat on the stove top or in an oven. The interior of the cut remains moist and delicate, making a pleasant contrast with the crisp exterior. Paiche can also be breaded and fried conventionally with good results.

Other Preparations

Paiche's delicate flavor makes it a natural choice for cooking "en papillote," in a pouch of parchment paper. This allows the fish to steam in its own juices, with whichever flavors the chef chooses to add. Regional cuisines achieve a similar effect by wrapping the fish in banana leaves or other natural wrappers, some of which impart a flavor or color. It can also be steamed Asian-style on a bed of aromatic vegetables, or poached in a flavorful liquid in the classic French style. Paiche is firm enough that small pieces can even be stir-fried in Asian dishes.

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