Arapaima: Eating A Living Fossil (Paiche)
A fish which does not use gills. No lungs either, although it breathes air.
A living fossil. An evolutionary dead-end unchanged from 23 million years old fossils.
Shares the river with piranhas. Armored with scales that can break the teeth of a piranha.
No predator threatened it in millions of years– until humans came along.
And, Morimoto will cook it for you. In a dozen ways…
Arapaima: Monster of the Shallows
In a recent episode of Iron Chef America, Chef Morimoto and his challenger faced an unfamiliar secret ingredient: paiche, a South American river fish you will not find at the supermarket. Paiche, or arapaima, is endangered and its commercial fishing is prohibited in Brazil. There are alternatives if you are as well-connected like the chairman, or willing to spend the extra dollar. Otherwise, you will go through life without eating arapaima (more on price and availability later).
Typical arapaima lives in the Amazon river and grows to 7 feet and weighs around 200 pounds. There have been reported cases of arapaima over 14 feet long and weighing 450 lb. It is one of the largest fresh water fish on the planet.
Life of a Sea Monster
Amazon’s water has low levels of oxygen. That’s not a problem for arapaima: it comes up for air after staying under water for as long as 20 minutes (10 minutes is normal). It takes in the air through its mouth and processes it directly, because it has no lungs to hold the air.
The low oxygen level is a boon to arapaima. As the other fish become dull and lethargic when oxygen levels fall they become easy to hunt for arapaima. Arapaima is the king predator.
Should a hungry piranha become desperate enough to attack an arapaima, it will have broken teeth for its efforts. Arapaima has scales over two inches long. Those scales are impenetrable to even piranha teeth.
Arapaima feeds on other fish and reaches maturity in 4-5 years. It lives longer than most fish– as long as 20 years (15 to 20 years is typical in captivity).
Arapaima lay their eggs in shallow 6″ trenches 2-feet wide. When the eggs hatch, the males carry the young in their mouth for their safety. The females circle the males and chase off any threats.
They are vulnerable to spear fishing. Humans fished arapaima to near extinction in the 20th century. Now, commercial fishing of wild arapaima is banned. Only tribal fishing for food is allowed.
Breeding Arapaima for Food
If the idea makes you queasy, we don’t blame you. We are not about to order paiche (arapaima) either from Peru or Japan.
The Hochschild Group, a Peruvian conglomerate, markets paiche under the Amazone brand. The image above comes from their presentation.
Amazone says it preserves the species and creates employment. It has chefs attest that paiche is low-fat and high protein, ideal for “light and fancy dishes.” The chefs also praise paiche’s large size, firmness, smoothness and juiciness.
1. Arapaima’s scales are being studied by body armor designers. They will find clues to building better and lighter armor. Or, you can buy earrings made of paiche scales on the Web!
2. Arapaima are popular in aquariums around the world, and you will find them at all large ones. Here’s a short video of arapaima at the Beijing aquarium:
3. Availability and price: Not easily or routinely available. The only places you can find paiche are South Florida, New York City and San Francisco. We could not locate any online store selling paiche.
If your personal fishmonger gets it, expect to pay $30-50 a pound!
4. More than a dozen restaurants in South Florida as well as a handful in Boston and San Francisco serve farmed paiche from Amazone on their menus.
5. While arapaima is large, it is still dwarfed by the largest fresh water fish, the giant sting ray, which can grow to 15 feet and weigh half-a-ton.
4. Science on MSNBC Are piranha-proof fish the secret to better body armor?
5. Simon Majumdar Paiche — Iron Chef Ingredients