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It’s pretty hard to get Argentines excited about consuming anything other than cow carcass. The figures speak for themselves: almost 60 kilos of beef compared with nine kilos of fish were eaten by every inhabitant in 2015, according to Argentina’s Agriculture Ministry. But, using the ingenuity for which he’s known, El Baqueano’s Fernando Rivarola cunningly, yet inadvertently, created a fish dish that deceives the most ardent of protein fans.
His emblematic falso bife de chorizo – that’s to say, a fake New York strip – looks like medium-rare steak, smells like steak and even has the texture of steak. The twist is this: it’s made with pacú, a river fish found across the Amazon basin that was, until relatively recently, freely caught in Argentina’s Río Paraná.
The idea of playing with textures came about in the Baqueano kitchen when, keen to put pacú on his menu, Fernando discovered he could only use farmed products because it’s endangered in Río Paraná. Regardless, he saw the opportunity to share the story behind its unfortunate demise, while proving how versatile this underappreciated fish can be.
“Three years ago, I started to work with pacú, which, at first glance, doesn’t appear to offer up much. Its particular characteristic is having lots of fat between its muscles, whether it’s farmed or wild. I’d been making jamón del río and telling the story about making ham from fish, to show that we could produce something similar to meat but without salting or drying it out. I was getting pretty good results plus that meant I could start talking about what is happening in Río Paraná.”
With a fish-based ham under his belt, Fernando started concocting additional ways to include pacú on the table. “I worked on an idea for a dish that would include ‘soil’ sourced from soil and ‘soil’ sourced from water. The former was beetroot and the latter, pacú thanks to its characteristics, always clarifying that it’s a farmed fish.
“That dish had declinations featuring different beetroot textures, white chocolate and yoghurt, classic contrasts with that root vegetable. Then I started to impregnate the pacú with beetroot juice, as I was playing with fake earth and creating a visual game. When I impregnated the fish with beetroot, I discovered two things: first, that the color was very particular as it reached all the meat yet the fat stayed white; and second, that it didn’t look so great. In my mind, it had seemed like a good idea but it wasn’t look so attractive when plated.”
Curious to find out more about pacú, he and Gabriela Lafuente, El Baqueano’s sommelier and co-owner, visited the fishing community from Remanso Valerio, a village in Santa Fe province. Fernando adds: “Stock has dwindled so we tell the fishermen’s problem story, explaining why we can’t serve wild pacú.” You can find out more about the community in this video, where pescadores blame construction of the sub-fluvial tunnel for this turn of events.
While it remained a work in progress until this point, the falso bife de chorizo as it’s served today came about following a collaboration with a Brazilian chef. Fernando adds: “Thiago Castanho from Remanso do Bosque, Belém, came to cook in Cocina Sin Fronteras and he brought some pirarucu (paiche/arapaima), an Amazon fish, which is special for its strong meat and ability to deal with a lot of cooking. We sealed it then put in it in the oven, and it coped well with that. We cooked the pacú the same way and that was the start of the falso bife de chorizo – although we didn’t realize it. We discovered it had the same characteristics as the pirarucu thanks to its fat levels. We served it and said jokingly that it’s a falso bife de pesacdo from the river here.”
Though it’s now El Baqueano’s most emblematic dish, the falso bife de chorizo only makes guest appearances on special occasions these days given its lack of availability.
Fernando says: “It’s hard to get those big pieces of pacú from fish farmers that I used to get, so I only bring out the dish when colleagues want to try it. Micha [Mitsuharu Tsumura from Lima’s Maido] is a fan, for example, while [food critic] Ignacio Medina said he loved it but would like it rawer; the final touch was to amend that. Today it’s a Baqueano classic and it’s a simple story; besides dying fake bife de chorizo, we also play with vegetable charcoal to give it extra barbecue flavor. It’s presented under a semi-sphere filled with smoke and aromas so diners imagine they are eating a cut of beef. The only thing that’s missing is special tableware.
“The falso bife de chorizo is curious as it doesn’t work with any sides, no matter what you match it with. It’s a standalone dish that doesn’t need any help – and that’s because of the fish’s characteristics. There aren’t too many fish dishes you can serve on their own, plus you normally have to disguise them – and even more so in Argentina.”