Why This Recipe Works
- Frying the fish develops its flavor before poaching it in the stew to finish cooking.
- Cooking the aromatic vegetables in a slow and steady sequence builds sweetness and tenderness.
- An optional broth made from the fish scraps (if using a whole fish) further enhances the flavor of the stew.
“You’ve arrived just in time,” Graciela Narvaez greets me. “The guys are about to start the chupín.”
It’s a scorching summer day in Tres Bocas, a village on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Chaco in Northeast Argentina. I’ve just arrived to the home of Narvaez and her husband, Alberto Navarro, to spend the weekend fishing on the Río Paraná, a river that extends 5000 kilometers from Brazil to Argentina’s Río de la Plata river basin and is home to countless communities of fishermen just like this one.
The announcement of a hot fish and tomato stew, which I had only ever eaten on cold winter nights, catches me off guard. It’s barely 10 in the morning and the heat has already surpassed 100 degrees. “For breakfast?” I ask. Narvaez laughs, “It’s already midday. Lunch is at noon so we can take a siesta and beat the afternoon heat.”
Underneath the shade of the patio’s long corrugated roof sits Lolu, Alberto’s fishing buddy. He eyes a pair of armado, a catfish native to the warm fresh waters of the Paraná River, hanging from a string on the fence like an upside-down bouquet. The armado is a monstrous sight—bulbous belly, rounded face, long whiskers, murky brown scales, and a row of thorns that jut out from its sides. It’s known along the Paraná for its size and inexhaustibility. Once it is hooked, it swims deep with the current and, as it is pulled to the water’s surface, lashes its body back and forth and slams its head in all directions.
The armado, according to this trio, is the only fish they’ll use for a chupín, making the triumph of catching one all the more prized.
In the warmest months when fish are most active, Lolu and Alberto steer their large wooden canoe out to the rivers’ islets, where they spend weeks at a time camping in the wilderness with other fishermen. Days start before sunrise and go well into the afternoon. The men catch as much as they can using a system of nets and long lines with up to a dozen hooks that are held in the low water with anchors. The day’s catch is quickly gutted and cleaned and taken back to shore where their wives meet them on a motorcycle and exchange small bags of provisions for their husband’s catch, which they take back to the village to be sold by the pound or made into meatballs or milanesas (breaded and fried).
“Fishing comes with a lot of sacrifice,” Alberto says. “It’s really difficult work. We can’t take a lot of food with us. Yerba mate, some lard or oil, a few vegetables, salt, some noodles, and a box of tomato sauce. We eat a lot of chupín.”
The work calls for a chupín. The kind of meal that sticks to the ribs and fills you up with nutrients with just a handful of ingredients, a woodfire, and a single pot.
Lolu sharpens a long boning knife and cleans the fresh armado. He tosses the guts into the yard for the animals and sets aside the heads for soup. Alberto takes the cleaned fish and slices them into thick cutlets without removing the skin, spine, or fins. In the backyard, he sets a deep cast iron pot on a grill that sits over a small fire, adds a generous scoop of pig lard, and begins to build his stew: onions, carrots, bell peppers, and peas are added one-by-one with a pinch of salt in-between, allowing each to soften and grow fragrant before adding the next. Uncooked tomato sauce and hot water are mixed in and reduced before adding starchy potatoes, which Alberto cuts into thick slices that will take long enough to cook that the broth will concentrate in both texture and flavor at the same time.
“Once the potatoes are nearly finished, that’s when you add the fish and mix it with the liquid,” Alberto explains. “This moment is as important as building the sauce.” The fish cooks quickly, and if it’s left too long, you risk it breaking down into stray shreds and flakes of meat.
Noon had rolled around by the time we sat at a picnic table on the patio and ladled stew into our bowls. I immediately understood why this was a choice meal after a long day on the river: Alberto reduced the sauce so much that just a thick trace of tomato sauce was left at the very bottom of the pot—nearly all that flavor had been absorbed into the potatoes. Yet while the thick potatoes weighted me down, the delicate white fish and the simplicity of a handful of fresh vegetables was light enough that I could choose to go build a canoe or sneak in a nap. We all chose the latter.
Chupín Up and Down the Río Paraná
A few days later, I crossed the river that divides the Chaco province from neighboring Corrientes. I met with cook Edgard Maidana of Nispero, a supper club and catering company, who was surprised that Alberto’s chupín was so different from his mother’s despite only being separated by a river.
“Everyone that lives along the Río Paraná eats chupín,” Edgard says. “Every region has their technique and each family has their own recipe. If my mom has yucca on hand, she prefers to use that instead of potato. I’ve never seen anyone else make it like that.”
The addition of yucca demonstrates both the indigenous Guaraní legacy in Corrientes’ culinary tradition and the adaptability of the dish itself. Although his mother, Gaby Alcaraz, is also a steadfast believer in using armado, she uses a layering technique akin to a lasagna known as chupín «a la olla» or «pot-style.» She stacks medium-diced raw vegetables and thick fish cutlets inside a large pot in alternating layers: Two layers of vegetables for every layer of fish. Fresh tomatoes are subbed for uncooked tomato sauce and the broth is made with half a liter of red wine, and a few tablespoons of olive oil, as well as oregano, paprika, and cumin. The pot is covered and simmers until the potatoes, which should be layered towards the top, are cooked through.
I got curious and called my friend Jorgelina Mandarina, a cook and restaurant consultant in Paraná, the capital of the province of Entre Ríos, which sits just south of Corrientes. She was shocked by both recipes. For Jorgelina, chupín isn’t a stew but a brothy soup.
“Chupín is one of those recipes that changes depending on the context of the meal,” Jorgelina says. “I made chupín at a restaurant that I worked at in Buenos Aires. We made a stock with the fish head, built a broth with all sorts of vegetables and spices, and made a soup. We either topped it with an herby chimichurri or grated tomato and chiles. At home, I still make a stock but I just need fresh tomato, the best catfish I can find at the market, and whatever vegetables I have on hand.”
I wanted to make a chupín that reflected all three cooks.
Choosing a Fish
The first step was figuring out how to replace armado with another fish. In Buenos Aires, there is an abundance of saltwater fish from the Atlantic Ocean but river fish from the Paraná is limited and challenging to find. Armado was out of the question.
I gleaned advice from Alberto and Graciela. They explained the basics despite being skeptical that a real chupín could be pulled off with any other fish: It needed to be a bottom feeder that weighed at least two kilos with enough white meat to slice into steaks that were at about one inch thick at the middle part of the fish, with meat that is firm enough to withstand the rolling boil of a strong flame.
I remembered something that Gaby had mentioned: The armado is a fish that absorbs whatever flavors you throw at it. I needed a fish that would take in more flavor than it put out, which meant avoiding oily and full-flavored fish like salmon and Chilean sea bass. Finally, Jorgelina assured me that any well-selected catfish should work: “Look for fish with white meat that has intramuscular fat. You want a fish that will help give a butteriness to a broth.”
I ended up choosing a boga, a scaled catfish from the Paraná River that fit nearly all the specifications: thick cutlets, strong white meat, and enough fat to add richness without sabotaging the chupín that muddy catfish flavor. For those cooking this elsewhere, catfish (whole if you can get it, though that isn’t easy everywhere) is a good freshwater option, while striped bass, snapper, and monkfish are some good saltwater choices.
Making My Own Chupín
Alberto’s humble campsite stew is the product of necessity: A hearty meal with limited ingredients and cooking utensils. I wanted to take advantage of a home kitchen and incorporate Gaby and Jorgelina’s techniques without straying too far from the original essence.
I started by making his chupín to a tee: equal parts fish and potato, one-fourth part onion with carrots, red bell peppers, and peas stewed with a jar of plain uncooked tomato puree and water.
I built my base slowly with pork fat, cooking the onions downs until they were browned and sweet, adding one vegetable after another. The final result was a simple, hearty stew similar to the one I ate in Tres Bocas: a touch of sweet carrot and onion, slightly acidic tomato, starchy potatoes that kept their structure and held onto the broths flavor, light flavored fish, and the immediate desire to take a nap afterwards. These were the elements I wanted to preserve. But I wanted more sauce, more flavor to welcome each bite of boga.
I decided to make a simple stock with the fish head plus aromatic vegetables and herbs. This is something you can do if you’re working with a whole fish. If not, vegetable stock is one good choice for sneaking more flavor into the pot than just water, though water too will work.
I tried both chupíns side-by-side. The essence was the same except my more flavor-packed version had a complexity that spoke to all three regional perspectives I’d experienced, all in one bowl of chupín. Once I was done, I promptly took a nap, as one does after eating a chupín.