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January 18, 2010

While working at D.O.M. we have been exposed to many ingredients that Chef Alex Atala discovered on his research travels through Brazil. Pirarucu is a fresh water fish that has been consumed for centuries by the people of the Amazon. Historians affirm that the species dates back to the Jurassic Period (200 million years back), which makes it  one of the most ancient fish species around  It is  also one of the biggest scaly fishes in the world, and the biggest fresh water fish in the world. Since they are so hard (and large), the scales from pirarucu are used as nail files and also employed in crafts to make jewelry and souvenirs. In other areas it can also be called arapaima or paiche.

An Amazonian Legend:

The name pirarucu is derived from two indigenous terms: pira which means fish, and urucum which means red (the color of the fish´s tail). In native lore there is the legend of Pirarucu, a young Indian who belonged to the Uaiá tribe from the Southwest plains of the Amazon.  Pirarucu was a brave warrior but he had an evil heart; he was selfish and excessively proud of his powers. He loved to criticize the gods and to abuse his status as the chief’s son. Tupã, the God of gods, had been observing him and decided to punish him. Tupã called out for the gods Polo and Iururaruaçú to punish the tribe with storm and lightning. The young Pirarucu laughed and despised the God’s wrath. Tupã then called upon Xandoré, the god who hates humans, to strike Pirarucu and drag him to the depths of the river where he was turned into a big dark fish. Pirarucu now swims through the waters where he terrorizes the other fish and even other small animals.

Pirarucu is a prized fish that has been a victim of predatory fishing in the Amazon. This fish species is very particular because it lives in calm waters where the oxygen level is low, so to compensate, it developed a respiratory system that allows it to breathe air from the surface (in addition to using gills for capturing oxygen from the water).  The fish can grow as big as nine feet long and can reach weights over 450lbs. Because of its unique breathing characteristics, the fish is an easy prey for hunters who will harpoon it when it surfaces for air (they usually have to surface about every fifteen minutes). The fish also develops reproductive maturity later in life. For these reasons the governments of Brazil, Peru, and Colombia have put restrictions to the specific seasons and areas where the fish may be caught.  Pirarucu is one of  21 Brazilian resources listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. Since its rise in popularity with fine dining restaurants, pirarucu farms have become a successful and sustainable business. Because the fish lives in low oxygen areas, it adapts well to captivity in ponds. Farmers in São Paulo state can supply the restaurant demand in the city, guaranteeing fresh fish delivered the day it is removed from the ponds. And, for anyone wanting to start a fish farm  in Brazil, there are several websites where you can mail order pirarucu fry (or babies).

little pirarucu for mail order

Mail order pirarucu

D.O.M.’s menu has a pirarucu that is sauteed and served with sagu of açaí and red wine (remember the garnish that Heather was assigned to prepare everyday this week?), and a tucupi with herbs sauce (tucupi is a broth made from the water removed during the process to make manioc flour which is cooked for hours to remove the toxins).

D.O.M.'s pirarucu

D.O.M.'s pirarucu (photo by Giacomo Bocchio)

Widely used in the cuisines of the Amazon region, Pirarucu is consumed fresh or preserved in salt – it even has the nickname bacalhau da Amazonia (Cod of the Amazon). There are many recipes that traditionally came from Portuguese cuisine where salted cod is widely used and now are common to the Amazon cities with the presence of salted pirarucu (fried pirarucu cake is the main example). Another traditional recipe in the region is Pirarucu de Casaca, a layered casserole that usually includes salted pirarucu, manioc flour, onions, bananas, potatoes, and olive oil.

One interesting recipe I read in a book about the Amazon is called Pavulagem (this word loosely translates into English as boasting, but in the north of Brazil it has many more connotations which would require a professional linguist to explain). 🙂


8 portions
(This dish can also be prepared with other white, firm-flesh fishes such as dourado or fresh cod).

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, chopped
  • 1 cup butter
  • 4 cups manioc flour
  • 10 eggs
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a skillet, heat the olive oil and sauté the onion and garlic until they start to brown. Add the parsley and 3/4 of the butter. When the butter melts add the manioc flour, keep stirring until the flour is browned. Reserve. With the remaining butter cook the eggs, scrambled, until done but still soft. Mix with the manioc flour and reserve.

  • 1 lime, quartered
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 lb. fresh pirarucu fillets, cubed
  • 3 eggs
  • juice of 1/2 a lime
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 3 cups oil (for frying)
  • 6 oz Brazil nuts, grated

In a blender, pulse the lime with the water and then strain. Blend again, adding the garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Marinate the fish in this liquid for 20 minutes. Beat the eggs and combine with the reserved lime juice and water. Drench the fish in this mixture and then dip it in the flour. Dip it again in the egg mixture and lastly in the breadcrumbs. Deep fry the fish and after it is drained serve it with the cooked manioc flour (farofa). Sprinkle the Brazil nuts on top.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Calvin permalink
    April 13, 2010 3:18 pm

    Very cool article! Do these fish have the worms that you would find in a codfish since they are similar? I remember you told me that the Brazilian government was telling the local people that acai was poisonous so that they could export more to US, is that still happening?

    • April 13, 2010 8:57 pm

      As a side-note, the bones on a pirarucu are so tough to remove that to get a boneless filet you literally have to cut the bones out of the fish entirely. They run in a straight line down the center of the filet, then split into a shallow Y shape near the tail – so you have to take out a HUGE chunk of the flesh in fine dining, it’s pretty insane. We didn’t mind eating the trimmings for family meal. though 🙂

      Anyway, I don’t think it has as many worms as cod. When we would butcher the fish at DOM, we wouldn’t de-worm them at all… in fact, I don’t think any restaurant in Brazil ever de-worms fish (only the top tier fine dining restaurants even de-bone fish, haha). I’ve found worms in several pieces of fish I’ve had in several places in Brazil… it kind of ruins my appetite. I don’t remember ever seeing one in pirarucu, though. Interesting question, as always 🙂

      We have a massive açaí post coming… but that’s in March and we’re still posting in January… haha. I’ll let Alex answer that part. 🙂

      Miss you!! We really hope you’ll come visit us somewhere. =)

      • Alex permalink
        April 14, 2010 10:33 am

        None of the Pirarucu we received at D.O.M. had worms.
        I believe that in the wild it wouldn’t have worms either because being a fresh water fish it does not contract the same kind of worms that the big fish in the ocean do.

  2. Audrey permalink
    April 13, 2010 3:28 pm

    Hi Alex and Heather,

    Just wanted to say that I REALLY love your blog! This past year I’ve become increasingly obsessed with food and cooking and can´t seem to ever tire of learning and reading about cuisine. I’ve read almost all of your blog entries and have learned so much from you guys – it’s all so fascinating. You both write with such affection for what you do and the things and places you experience. Thanks for sharing so much of your knowledge and adventure.

    Audrey Carreón

    • Alex permalink
      April 14, 2010 10:25 am

      Thanks for the support Audrey.
      Keep on reading and experimenting.
      We would love to hear about some of your culinary adventures.

      I miss you!


  3. February 28, 2011 11:49 am

    ese pez pequeño si es un pirairucu


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