Backstory: The cook has no beef with fish
ARROYO LEYES, ARGENTINA — We are pressed by Herefords, surrounded by Holsteins, and from the shade beneath the roof of rushes and straw, we see Black Anguses grazing on the island across the wide arroyo. We are in Santa Fe Province, Argentina's cow country.
So where's the beef?
Well, out there on the hoof. In here, fish is the dish, and has been for the 40-odd years since Nidia Concepcion Centurion Uleriche collected the recipes from people who lived out on the island, the gauchos and others who worked the great estancias, and who ate beef when they could afford it, but also took their food from the waters around them. She and her husband opened a fish restaurant and named it after the knuckle of land jutting into the arroyo, La Vuelta del Pirata, the place of the pirate, once a depot for smugglers bringing contraband down from Paraguay.
One must live in Argentina awhile to appreciate the audacity of the Uleriche family. Fish is not common to Argentines. For most of them it's meat – meat from the cow here at the country's geographical center, meat from the goat in the Andean northwest, meat from the sheep down in Patagonia.
Argentina, with one of the longest coastlines in the world, spurns the sea, culinarily speaking. The fish of the South Atlantic are harvested by ships of other countries. Little of their catch comes ashore.
"We use only autochthonous fish," says Carlos Uleriche. He's the son of the founders and he runs this restaurant. "We cook the fish of the river."
And such a river it is. The Parana, second only to the Amazon, drains much of the South American continent. It is a river sea: That is what its name means in the Tupi language. It runs nearly 2,500 miles from its headwaters in Brazil and is so large in many place that one cannot easily define its dimensions, or tell where one bank stands with relation to the other, or even see the other side. Here, near the city of Santa Fe, the provincial capital, it unfolds into an immense water world, a green archipelago formed by a vast tangle of needle-thin streams, wide secondary rivers like the Colastine and Salado, small and large lakes, painted brown or silver by the sun and clouds, a riot of curving branches and tributaries, immense lagoons like Setubal and Rodeo. This maze of flowing water creates and erases islands, such as the Island of the Lioness that faces Arroyo Leyes.
The fish that live in this river are of Amazonian proportions – fish like the surubi and dorado, and a multitude of other species, most with Indian names. There are ray fish in the Parana that weigh hundreds of pounds. At one time you could sit in this restaurant and between courses watch these fish being brought up out of the river, each requiring a man with a wheelbarrow to deliver it to the kitchen.
Those days are gone, Mr. Uleriche says. The populations of the big fish have diminished. The Parana is overfished. Uleriche, who now gets his stock farther upriver, defines this inconvenience with one word. "Globalization," he says, "has encouraged large fishing companies to catch and export the smaller fish of the river, the sabalo in particular, to Brazil, South Africa." He's not sure where else or what they do with it.
The sabalo, important prey for larger fish, is on Uleriche's menu. He serves it grilled. We had just shaken hands, and that common gesture seemed so familiar. Didn't I shake hands with Carlos 32 years ago? Yes, but that was his father, husband to the late Nidia Concepcion, mother of the lean 37-year-old man who stood before me, who told me about the great flood in 1983, the dark year when his mother died and the family was driven from Arroyo Leyes.
"Has the menu changed?" I asked.
He must have sensed apprehension. His head moved slowly from side to side. He smiled. "Not really," he said, though he admitted that the dorado was missing. The fightingest fish in the river draws anglers from all over the world, and is now a prohibited catch for much of the year.
"Let's get to it," I said, and we did. Without fuss, ceremony, or even bothering to order, the panorama of Uleriche's kitchen, the fruit of his hot grill and caldrons of boiling oil, unfolded as two efficient waitresses started to deliver the nine courses, the way they always had.
A tart, pickled fish – escabeche of mimoso, a species that moves between the river and sea – came first, a small bite, followed by a salad of boga, and empanadas of surubi, fishcakes three times the size of a Boston coddie, baked in a dough light enough to humble the likes of Emiril.
A special happiness began to light the faces around our table, evidence of discovery. Caroline Bayo, an actress, said, "I'm not accustomed to eating fish." She might have been speaking for most of her compatriots. "Mother cooked it only now and again, when I was young."
The surubi and the pacu, both large fish, are among the favorites of Uleriche's clientele, who are drawn from the small villages around Arroyo Leyes, the city of Santa Fe and even distant Cordoba, to the west. The restaurant doesn't advertise.
I used to fast before a visit to this place. How else could one get through it all? A friend said you should train like Carlos Monzon, the late world middleweight boxing champion and frequent customer, "to go the distance." Still, I've never been able to reach the end, even though the dishes seem to get better as you near it.
We had small balls of firm and delicious white fish with tomato sauce, thin slices of surubi breaded and fried, one with rochefort dressing, another with tomato sauce. Two crisp pacu (farm raised because fishing them in the wild is banned) from the grill: these were eaten from the tray, with everyone picking at them with their forks. One of my favorites of Uleriche's invention is surubi with brown sugar. He only offers it on Sunday. It was Saturday.
I asked Uleriche which among his delectable inventory he favors most. He seemed reluctant, as if by choosing one, he'd denigrate the others. But he did: "mandube cut into pieces and fried. It is the small cousin of the surubi."
Between courses – and to do it right it's a 2-1/2-half hour affair – I watched the clouds on the surface of the arroyo, their shade sweeping over the little boats lying still in the water. The sun drifted through the day.
I wanted to know about the flood of 1983. Floods perpetually afflict this region. Depending on the amount of rain in Brazil, the river rises and falls all along its course and, owing to the flatness of the pampas, if it rises a few feet somewhere it will move out of its bed for hundreds of yards. The restaurant, according to a measuring rod planted at the shore, sits about five to six meters above the arroyo's surface. It wasn't enough.
"When it came it wiped out everything," Uleriche said, then holding his hand at the level of his own waist, added, "This floor had 50 centimeters of water on it ... it remained in here for 11 months."
Carlos was 13 when his father packed everything up and moved into Santa Fe. He prospered there. But in 2000 the senior Uleriche – the man who, in February 1974, done up in a blazer, cravat, and sandals, shook my hand and welcomed me to his restaurant – sent his son back up the river to start over. Six years on, the younger Uleriche estimates he has regained about half the clientele they had before the flood.
The final dish delivered to our table was a version of the marinera, a cut ofsurubi, wrapped in an egg batter, a mixture invented by Doña Nidiain 1970, the year of Carlos's birth.
After that, only one thing lay ahead. The siesta.