A 200 kg fish is on the restaurant menu

Its white flesh is tender and tasty, it can measure up to three meters long and weigh over 200 kilograms: meet the pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, and native to the Amazon.

The enormous animal, once threatened with extinction, is now on the plates of Rio de Janeiro’s most upscale restaurants, thanks to a number of chefs who have championed this delicacy and the indigenous communities that ensure its survival.

“Without them, there would be nothing left,” says Frédéric Monnier, chef at the city’s trendy Brasserie Rosario.

“What they do for the Amazon is priceless,” adds Jessica Trindade, Brazilian chef at Chez Claude, an institution on the city’s food scene.

Chef Marcelo Barcellos uses pirarucu in his moqueca, a fish stew swimming in palm oil and seasoned with cilantro, an iconic Brazilian dish that originated in the northeastern state of Bahia.

Served with a mixture of grilled cassava flour and nuts straight from the Amazon basin, the moqueca delights the taste buds and the eyes of gourmets, so much the white fish contrasts with the yellow flour and green spices.

The taste is similar to that of other saltwater whitefish like pollock or cod.

Barcellos, the executive chef and owner of Barsa restaurant, is one of the many chefs in Rio who have luckily added pirarucu to their menu.

But not so long ago, before the pirarucu hit the best tables in the Marvelous City, the Arapaima gigas – or Amazonian cod, as it is sometimes called – almost disappeared from the menus.

It has been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to the establishment in a nature reserve of a sustainable fishing program with strict quotas.

Pirarucu can only be fished from July to November, the non-mating season.

Raising the pirarucu’s profile with Rio’s top chefs has certainly helped.

The Taste of the Amazon project contributed to this. Recently, nine chiefs traveled to northern Brazil to observe how the Paumari tribe implemented sustainable practices for harvesting pirarucu.

Through their contact with native fishermen, the chefs learned which parts of the fish are best. This knowledge found its way onto their menus.

“It’s a great product, with a fabulous flavor, without that earthy taste that some freshwater fish have,” says Trindade.

For Ricardo Lapeyre of the Michelin-starred Laguiole Lab, the experience exceeded his expectations.

He thought he would make the trip just to learn a bit more about how to cook fish and bring new ingredients back to his kitchen.

As it turns out, he’s on the pirarucu train, and is one of her biggest fans.

“It’s a superior fish – the quality is far superior to what we get from fish farms,” he said.

“I realized the importance of the forest and the support given to projects that benefit local populations.

Adevaldo Dias, head of ASPROC, the cooperative that manages sustainable pirarucu fishing, was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of the chefs to participate in the project.

“I was struck by their commitment, their understanding of how good this fish is for the Amazon and the need to pay the fishermen properly,” Dias explained.

The sustainable pirarucu fishing project was set up 20 years ago.

Since then, the giant fish population has skyrocketed from over 2,500 in 1999 to over 190,000 last year.

Through ASPROC, fishermen are paid seven reais (about $ 1.75) per kilogram (2.2 pounds), compared to the four reais they could count on selling in local markets.

But the restaurants pay 48 reais per kilo, because of the transport costs. The dish is then sold for around 70 reais ($ 17).

Leonardo Kurihara – the Operation Native Amazon (OPAN) coordinator, which oversees the Taste of the Amazon initiative – chefs are essential because “they’re at the other end of the chain, bringing the product to the consumer.”

Felipe Rossoni, also at OPAN, explains that the initiative has paved the way for new markets for pirarucu.

“Sustainable fishing helps preserve the environment and strengthens the autonomy and clear identity of traditional communities,” said Rossoni.

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