Monday, September 6, 2010

Pirarucu - An Endangered Giant

The world's largest river system, the Amazon, has the world's largest number of freshwater fish species, and most likely the world's largest freshwater fish population. The fish that are found in the lakes, lagoons, streams, creeks and in the large river itself have always been the most important source of animal protein for inhabitants of the region. From tiny minnow-like species to large predatory fish, these animals have been eaten fresh, been smoked or salted, or simply air-dried for countless millennia and continue to be consumed today through the Amazonian basis. Unfortunately, with the large increase in human population, and with modern-day fishing techniques, for many species the 20th and 21st centuries have brought them extreme pressure, and extinction is a distinct possibility for many types of Amazonian fish.

One fish of the Amazonian basis, the pirarucu (known as the arapaima in English), which has become endangered due to its desirability as a food fish, has been adopted by Slow Food Brazil as part of the Brazilian Ark of Taste - a "repository" of at-risk food species and cooking or preserving techniques worthy of protection. Its inclusion on this list is the first step in the development of preservation projects designed to ensure a sustainable fishery for this fish.

The piracuru is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. It has anecdotally been reported to reach up to reach up to 14 feet (4.5m) in length, with a maximum confirmed weight of almost 450 lb (220 kg). It is a living fossil, having existed essentially unchanged since the Jurassic era. It has successfully adapted itself to life in the slow-moving waters of the Amazon's lakes and lagoons through the development of a rudimentary type of lung, which allows it to breathe air directly when the surrounding water is oxygen-deprived.

The piracuru is an important part of the nutrition of the riverside human population of the Amazon. The flesh has very few bones, and piracuru is eaten fresh, smoked, or salted and dried somewhat like salt cod (bacalhau). Besides the meat, other parts of the fish are used by locals - the piracuru's bony tongue is used to grate guaraná, and the skin, once dried, is used like leather in the fabrication of clothes and artisanal arts and crafts.

In the next post on Flavors of Brazil, there will be a recipe for one of the most well-known local dishes made from piracuru - piracuru de casaca.

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