Ricardo Zarate, the Los Angeles chef of Picca and Mo-chica, can remember traveling to the Amazonian town of Pucallpa from Lima to visit a girlfriend and tasting paiche, an enormous riverfish that can grow to almost five hundred pounds. At the time, you couldn’t get paiche on the coast, but as Peru’s culinary boom took hold and new ingredients began to be explored, paiche was overcaught and its hunting and consumption looked down upon by environmentalists.
In recent years, however, the mercury free paiche is once again appearing on restaurant menus. Ironically, it is the consumption of paiche that could now save the species.
In 2006, a group of Peruvian businessmen created the Amazone Project, which began to develop the sustainable farming of paiche and in 2011 it began to appear on a few restaurant menus in the United States. As it’s popularity increases a larger export market has begun to open up.
“For the first time in Peru companies have begun to farming paiche and are teaching the indigenous to farm,” says Zarate. “It’s an amazing act to promote in the United States.”
“I like that paiche is a very firm fish, but at the same time it is very soft,” he says. “It is somewhere between black cod and monkfish, two of my favorite fish. It has the texture of the monkfish, but it is buttery in the mouth like black cod.”
Compared to other white meat species, paiche has a lower percentage of fat on average, as well as a high amount of protein. Every 100 grams of meat contains 20 grams of protein.
At Mo-chica, which moved into a larger space in downtown Los Angeles this past May, Zarate serves paiche with ajiaco de arroz and a cherry tomato escabeche. As he revamps the menu at Picca, he expects to add additional dishes utilizing the Amazonian fish.
“I have many ideas,” says Zarate, who is exploring a miso based marinade for paiche. “I want to show that this is a good fish to use.”
If you cannot make it to Zarate’s two LA restraurants, the chef will be representing Picca at a New York City Pop-up at City Grit at 38 Prince St on September 14 and 15. Paiche is expected to be served.