“When I am in the kitchen with a paiche (Arapaima gigas), the biggest fish in Amazonia, I feel like this isn’t a fish at all. It has a completely different physical structure. I cannot debone it like I would a grouper or sea bass. When I pass the knife under its scales there is one big, thick bone that splits the fish into two. I have to respect that the structure is unique to properly remove the flesh. Considering a single paiche can weigh as much as four hundred pounds, it takes up a lot of room in the kitchen. The whole deboning area has to adapt. Right away, when you start to break it down, when you taste it and smell it, you know it’s not from the sea. But it doesn’t seem like it’s from a river either.
Paiche seems more like a dinosaur than a fish, which, to some extent, is true. This Jurassic era fish breathes air and is covered with thick scales with a hard, mineralized outer layer. Also called pirarucu in Brazil, it lives in the shallow, muddy waters of riverbeds in the Amazon basin, rising for air every fifteen to twenty minutes for air. Though heavily overfished, it remains an important food source for indigenous Amazonian communities. We used to get it wild until we realized it wasn’t sustainable. Near Yurimaguas, a farm called Amazone, exports sustainably raised paiche around the world.
In this recipe we cure paiche with airampo, a wild cactus from the high jungle that dyes the flesh pink, and the result, visually, is almost like that of gravlax. Like the Shipibo that dye their skin with huito, we are trying to achieve the same thing.” —Virgilio Martinez
- 800 g salt
- 300 g Airampo dye
- 300 g Pacae crystals
- 510 g Paiche (arapaima) fillets
- 4 g red oxalis leaves
- 10 chamomile flowers
- 4 ruda leaves
- 1 nasturtium flower
- 4 lemon verbena leaves
- 4 basil flowers
- 4 huacatay flowers
- 50 g Amazonian fish roe
- In a deep container, mix the salt, airampo dye, and pacae crystals with 2 L water until combined.
- Place the fish in the marinade and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove the fish from the marinade and wipe the excess liquid with a damp cloth.
- Slice the fish 1 mm (1/16 inch) thin, and place on a chilled flat stone surface. Add the red oxalis, chamomile, ruda, nasturtium, lemon verbena, basil flowers, and huacatay flowers. Top with the fish roe.