“I love fishing. You put that line in the water and you don’t know what’s on the other end. Your imagination is under there.”
– Robert Altman, Director
My recent trip up to San Pedro got me thinking about the various fish that are available to eat here in Buenos Aires and surrounds. It is often asserted that no or few fish are eaten here, that there is nowhere to get a decent fish dish in town, etc. Not true. There are plenty of good places for fish and shellfish here. True, most of them are not “Argentine” restaurants, but some are – the majority are Asian, of all stripes, Spanish and Peruvian. But even amongst the local cuisine there are a good number that offer up interesting fish dishes. Now a few things are to my mind, mistakes. It is quite common to see a Roquefort sauce offered up atop a fish – all well and good if we’re talking a good, strong flavored fish, but too often it’s ladled over lenguado or mero, or something equally delicate in the whitefish world.
Over the next couple of months I’m going to be exploring some of the local classic fish dishes. I thought I’d start, however, by introducing you to the local fish. And, we’ll begin with the common freshwater fish of the Rio de la Plata and Paraná Delta. It is unfortunate that not more advantage is taken of these fish, because some of them are absolutely delicious. Most local spots, if they offer any freshwater fish it will be salmon or trout, from Chile or Bariloche, respectively, or Pejerrey, a fish we’ll get to momentarily. Only one spot in town specializes in the preparation of fish from the river, Jangada, which I recommend giving a try. All of these photos come from the fish stores near to my house, so they’re readily available, particularly during the summer.
Since I just brought it up, let’s start with the Pejerrey, or South American Silverside family, Genus: Odontesthes, with several species, including platensis, bonariensis and others. The most common eating fish locally is probably the bonariensis, or Argentine Silverside. These are not big fish, in general – tending to be about 6-10 inches long, and very thin. The meat is gleaming white, with a silvery sheen or stripe on the outside. They have a fairly delicate flavor and are generally served up simply grilled or fried.
This is the Boga, or Leporinus obtusidens. sometimes also called piava or tres puntos. In Brazil, the piapara. It’s a greenish grey fish, generally weighing in around 2-3 kg (5-6 pounds), though there have been catches of boga that were as much as 8 kg (17.5 pounds). As an omnivore, it eats everything from grasses to crabs and snails, though its preferred food is cereal grains, and boga can often be found in abundance near places where cargo ships are loading or off-loading. I generally find that boga has a very strange, ammonia-like taste to it that isn’t overly pleasant – particularly when grilled.
The Carpa, or common Carp, Cyprinus carpio. Based on what research I’ve done, I gather that the carpa is not native to these waters, but, as in many places, an invasive species. I rarely see them and was actually surprised to see one being offered in one of the fish markets. They’re omnivorous as well, eating primarily worms, crustaceans, insects and water plants. And, well, carp is carp – not a great eating fish, best used, as far as I’m concerned, ground up as part of making gefilte fish.
The Dorado, unrelated to the Mediterranean fish called dorade, which in English is a sea bream and in Spanish is besugo, a saltwater fish, this is the Golden Dorado, Salminus maxillosus or Salminus brasiliensis. They are powerful swimmers, with powerful jaws and sharp teeth. They range anywhere from 3-10 kg typically, though the largest on record weighed in at 31.4 kg (69 pounds). They are piscivores, eating primarily just other fish, their favorite being the sábalo. They have very fat rich meat and are great on the grill or fried. They’re often served up a la vasca, or Basque style, with a saute of tomatoes and bell peppers.
The Pacú is an omnivorous fish in the piranha family, and they look it, with though their teeth are slightly different – more squared off than the razorsharp ones of the piranha, and more of an overbite. There are several species in the family, though the most common in the delta here is the Piaractus mesopotamicus, also known as pez chato (“flat fish”), mbiraí, or piraí. These are fat rich fish, and again great for grilling. Most of the ones found here tend to be no more than about 2 kg in weight, though there are related species, like the giant pacú, which can grow to more than a meter in length and weigh in at 30+ kg.
The Pati or Pez Gato is a long-whiskered freshwater catfish. They live in turbulent waters and so are well suited to the Rio de la Plata. Although omnivorous, they are primarily carnivorous, eating other fish and shellfish. They can easily grow to more than a meter in length. And, well, they taste like catfish – we’ll just have to introduce the locals to cornmeal crusts and a bit of hot sauce!
I could only find Surubí already cut up into steaks (“trozado”). In English known as the tiger shovelnose catfish, Brazilian tigerfish, or Tiger Sorubim, there are a trio of different species present in the delta, all belonging to the genus Pseudoplatystoma. The local name surubí is the native Guarani name for the fish, which is also known in various locales as doncella, zúngaro, moleque, pintado, bagre rayado, or pintadillo. They are piscivores, eating a wide variety of other fish, though, like the dorado above, they are particularly fond of sábalo. They are notable in the color of their flesh, which is a sort of peach orange-yellow, and are one of my favorites. (Various photos from others)
The Tararira or Trahira, is known as the wolf-fish or sometimes tiger-fish in English. It is a predatory fish, weighing in around 1-3 kg. It is an unusual fish as well, having some capacity for air-breathing, meaning it can propel itself on its fins across land from one pool of freshwater to another. It has a host of other common names, including Dientón or similar names in reference to its teeth, Bululu, Calabrote, Dormilón, Guabina, Guanchiche, Mocho, Moncholo, Perraloca, Perro, Rivolo, Tarango, Tarucha among them. I find it to be very bony, and difficult to work with, and other than encountering it a couple of years ago in a local fish market have never seen them here., though a quick internet search reveals several local recipes – which, if I can find the fish again, we’ll be giving a try.
On to the poor Sábalo, the favorite food fish of many of the carnivorous fish of the river. These are a small member of the tarpon family, and go by the latin moniker Prochilodus lineatus. It is a mudsucker (and is also known as the chupabarro, literally mudsucker), inhabiting deep waters and sucking up organic mud, which it processes and filters to get to whatever flora and fauna are buried there for its feed. The fish is, as noted, pretty much the foundation of the food chain for larger piscivores, and with human fishing, it is a species that is rapidly in decline – which may be why I haven’t seen any recently in the fish markets. I know that there are fishing limits on it, and there have been temporary bans at different points in time. I haven’t tried one, so can’t tell you what it tastes like, though the whole mudsucking thing doesn’t bode well for flavor….