The paiche or pirarucu is the largest fish of the Amazon basin, and one of the six largest freshwater fish on the planet, along with the great beluga sturgeon (Huso huso, huge, 5 m long and weighing 600 kg), Mekong catfish, manta fish, catfish and tiger fish.
Upon first sighting, one gets the impression that this is a huge, almost prehistoric fish because of its cylindrical, elongated body shape, its small head in relation to the body, its large mouth with numerous small teeth, its long, hard tongue and its large, thick, bony scales.
It belongs to the order osteoglossiforme, of which there are few representatives: 6 of the 409 families of the 20,800 species on the planet.
Dr. Rafael Cartay is a Venezuelan economist, historian, and writer best known for his extensive work in gastronomy, and has received the National Nutrition Award, Gourmand World Cookbook Award, Best Kitchen Dictionary, and The Great Gold Fork. He began his research on the Amazon in 2014 and lived in Iquitos during 2015, where he wrote The Peruvian Amazon Table (2016), the Dictionary of Food and Cuisine of the Amazon Basin (2020), and the online portal delAmazonas.com, of which he is co-founder and main writer. Books by Rafael Cartay can be found on Amazon.com
Origin of paiche
Specialists maintain that it descends from primitive bony species that lived in the Cretaceous period, which dates back from 65 to 136 million years ago.
The paiche or pirarucu is also impressive for its living habits, because it does not live at great depths but in the quietness of lentic waters, mostly lagoons or lakes, with a temperature of 24 to 31°C .
There it makes nests, digging in the mud or sand at the bottom, close to the shores with dense vegetation of grasses for food and protection.
Arapaima Gigas: a monster with the habits of a good father.
This fish is a kind of good monster, which lives in monogamous pairs and zealously performs parental care to the offspring.
On its head it has glands that secrete a water-soluble substance that marks its territory.
Its growth is slow, reaching maturity after eight years of age. It breeds every three years in the wild, and every four years in captivity or in reservoirs.
The tongue and scales of the fish are remarkable. Its long tongue, 25 cm long and 5 cm wide, is composed of a bony structure, as are its strong and large scales.
The color of its body is impressive: dark gray with reddish tones, and whitish in the ventral region.
In the upper part of the body it exhibits a reddish yellow stripe, of such a vivid color, during the breeding season (more intense in the male than in the female), which constitutes a spectacle when the fish moves on the surface of the nurseries.
The paiche is also bred in captivity, with good economic results, a common practice in Brazil, Peru and Ecuador, which is spreading to other Amazonian countries, and even outside the basin, in countries such as Mexico, Cuba, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Singapore and the Philippines.
Studies indicate that this species can reach 10 to 12 kg and 1.2 m in one year.
The fish complements its gill breathing, inhaling oxygen from the atmospheric air, by removing its head every so often, between 20 to 40 minutes, emitting a loud, deep, guttural, cavernous noise. It is said, then, that it “gasps”.
This regular and necessary movement puts it in danger, because it gives it away. This is the moment that fishermen take advantage of to spear it.
The indigenous legends of the ethnic groups that inhabited the southwestern Amazon, such as the Uaias, speak of a fierce warrior named Pirarucú, who was brave, but arrogant and vain, who liked to disobey the gods.
One day Tupa, the god of the gods, ordered Polo, the god of fire, to punish him by throwing lightning bolts at him, but he made fun of these punishments.
Until he was sent to Xandore, a man-hating demon, who threw a powerful lightning bolt through his heart. The demon carried his agonizing body and threw it into the waters of the Tocantins, Brazil’s longest river, 2,450 km long, where it was transformed into the pirarucu, a giant fish that spread terror in the Amazon.
Artisanal uses of Paiche or pirarucu.
Handbags, shoes, belts, purses and handicrafts are made from the resistant pirarucu skin.
Its bony tongue is used to grate cassava and to scrape wood, as sandpaper and to prepare medicines used to eliminate intestinal parasites.
Its bony scales are used to make nail files and spoons and paddles for use in the kitchen.
The meat of the pirarucu or paiche is white, firm, edible and highly valued commercially.
They are sold in Amazonian markets in large rolls of fresh or salted meat.
Its meat is very rich in protein, around 36.5%, with the advantage of not having intermuscular bones. Cooks use the flesh of the fish as a substitute for cod(Gadus morhua).
Another advantage is that it yields about 57% of its total weight in carcasses.
Arapaima gigas roe: the Amazonian caviar
A female can produce up to 600,000 eggs. Their roe is highly appreciated in the markets, where they are called “Amazon caviar”. They are prepared macerated in wine or vinegar, and then passed through an arumá strainer and smoked over a wood fire.
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