It’s hard to imagine a restaurant in Teresópolis serving Brazilian mid-western food. But for Mr. Ernani Antônio de Oliveira, Caldo de Piranha is a specialty. In fact, when I heard about this place, my enthusiasm for trying this famous dish from the Pantanal region got even stronger, as I was about to enrich my knowledge for an important item in the Brazilian culinary identity.
One of Teresópolis most traditional and beloved restaurants, Caldo de Piranha was established in 1994, June 17th to be precise. Mr Oliveira, the owner, does not claim the creation of the recipe but his restaurant popularity was built upon it. That began 25 years ago, the day he caught a Piranha fish for the first time on his trip to Pantanal (located in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul). He knew about the dangerous of the species, which in a way, made this challenge even more fascinating. There, he tried Piranha for the first time and since then, he became intimate friends with the beast.
At first, he followed a well-known recipe. As time went by, he perfected his own version, found a supplier in Vitoria, Espírito Santo, and practiced cooking it back at his hometown in Teresópolis. He tried selling the dish in his son’s snack bar. On the first day, he sold 53 soups. On the second day 113, and on the third day, 240. After 30 days of increasing demand and continuous success, his son realized the potential of that one single recipe and transformed his bar into a real restaurant specializing in his father’s signature dish.
When I tasted the famous dish, I quickly understood the deep pleasures of a warm fish soup echoed of course by the prized flavors of the Piranha fish. With a rich creaminess that nevertheless comes without cream, this hearty and earthy soup is the kind of meal that can be served as an appetizer or as a main course.
Going to Teresóplolis is the best way to sample Mr Oliveira’s famous soup. Ok, let’s be realistic; although chances are slim that you’ll do that, or that we’ll find a piranha fish in the US, I will still post this fantastic recipe, because my desire is to at least adapt the fish soup, possibly with another fish. To do this, you must know your fish. Take a good look at these photos and then investigate as many fish as possible, talk to fishmongers * and try to imagine a fish soup as satisfying as Caldo de Piranha. And then you cook. You cook your fish soup slowly; submerged it in golden garlic, in the Brazilian style, and you adjust it for the American taste. You add onions and tomatoes and make a refogado**. You blend your refogado and return to the pan. You cook the fish and flake the meat and you add everything to the same pan. You stir, you mix, you season, and you simmer until the soup thickens properly bubbling in the pan.
Cook it often, and cook it well, and be sure to write down the recipe because your friends and family will want to make it at their homes too. But most importantly, you write it down because discovering a new recipe will only brighten your life.
The recipe below is adapted from Mr Oliveira’s recipe.
Caldo de Piranha (Adapted to the United States)
1 whole Branzino, gutted, scaled, head and tail off (about 1.46 lbs or 665g)
Freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
3 scallions (white and green parts), finely chopped
3 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (1 1/3 cup or 240g)
3 tablespoons (20g) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoon fresh chopped cilantro
1. Cut the fish into large chunks, about 2-inches and season with salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven or large casserole, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the fish and cook, turning occasionally until it starts to turn opaque, about 4 minutes. Depending on the fish, the skin might stick to the bottom of the pan, and that’s ok, you can scrape it later. Add enough water to cover the fish (about 3 cups), cover the pan, and bring to boil. Once it reaches a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer gently until the fish is cooked, about 5 minutes taking care to skim off any foam that bubbles to the surface.
2. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the fish and place in a bowl. When is cool enough to handle, shred the meat into small thin threads; discard skin and bones. Keep the fish covered with foil. Strain the liquid and reserve in a bowl.
3. In the same pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat and add the garlic; cook until just lightly golden brown. Add the onions, scallions, and cook stirring frequently until it’s nice and soft. Add the tomatoes and cook until it just starts to release its water. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Transfer to a small bowl of a food processor and whir until it becomes a puree, about 1 minute. Scrape back into the pan.
4. Add the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add the fish threads and all reserved liquid; simmer the soup until it reaches proper consistency (not too thin, not too thick), about 10 minutes. Adjust with a little bit more of water if necessary. Season with salt and pepper.
5. To serve, ladle the soup into small individual dishes and garnish with, parsley and cilantro. (The soup can be kept covered in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)
* I called a reliable source, Paganos in CT (www.paganosseafood.com) and they were somewhat familiar with Piranhas. Although small red snapper, Branzino, and pompano are salt-water fish, they suggested as an accepted substitute for the Piranhas.
**Refogado is the name of onion/garlic (and) tomato mixture, similar to sofrito in Spanish cooking.
Restaurante Caldo de Piranha
Rua Jose Elias Zaquem, 305
Tel: ( 55) (21) 2643- 4908