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Dining on lions

Reef predator becomes a culinary delight

Dining on lions
Reef predator becomes a culinary delight

Unwelcome as they are on the nation’s reefs, lionfish (Pterois volitans) have two redeeming qualities: they’re beautiful and they’re delicious. Bahamian chefs have lost no time in turning the good-looking but venomously barbed newcomers into tasty entrées.

At Brussels Bistro, an elegant, cozy restaurant on Frederick St, just off Bay St, owner Heneliza Henry says she offers lionfish sometimes as a speciality.

Henry says she had been aware of the havoc lionfish wreaked on Bahamian reefs since 2008, but it wasn’t until 2010 that she began to feature the fish on her menu.

“We were invited to showcase some of our seafood dishes at a party. The host talked me into [offering] lionfish. My chef and I got a lot of it filleted. We looked at it and looked at each other and said: ‘So what do we do with it now?’”

“People at first were unsure of it, [but] as they started to try it, I had a line of people at my stand.”

Brussels Bistro now offers the tender, white meat pan fried with two choices of sauce: almondine (butter toasted almonds with a
touch of white wine) or a lemon caper onion sauce.

“My patrons love it,” says Henry. “Once they try it they are not disappointed.”

The lionfish has sharp barbs attached to its fins, especially 13 long ones on the dorsal fin that deliver a painful sting. These can be carefully but easily removed with kitchen shears, cutters or a sharp knife, according to the Bahamas Department of Marine Resources (DMR).

DMR, along with several partners, including the Bahamas National Trust, The Nature Conservancy and the Department of Public Health, have created the National Lionfish Response Plan, which encourages people to eat lionfish as a way to control the species’ explosive growth.

With the barbs removed, the fish can be safely filleted or cooked whole. The flesh is delicate and delicious, tasting somewhat like a cross between snapper and hogfish.

An ocean menace
Lionfish, which can grow up to 15 inches, breed quickly and feed voraciously on small reef fish.

Although other non-native marine fishes are periodically sighted, they have not demonstrated the ability to survive, reproduce and blanket an area.

Over the past few years the lionfish, a Pacific native, has spread up the US Eastern Seaboard and throughout the Caribbean.

The fish was first reported off Florida’s Atlantic coast in the mid-1980s, but the population grew to alarming levels in the early 2000s.

Since it’s a popular aquarium fish, it’s thought that irresponsible owners may have dumped their lionfish into the sea when they no longer wanted them. The warm waters of the Atlantic did the rest, transporting fish, eggs and larvae far and wide.

The invasive fish poses a severe threat to native reef fish. One study suggests the lionfish feeds on the young of up to three-quarters of a reef’s fish population. And it breeds quickly, laying 20,000 to 30,000 eggs at a time.

A slow-moving predator, the lionfish’s beautiful lacy fins may be mistaken by smaller fish for an innocent coral plant.

With no natural predators, humans are perhaps the only hope for slowing down the explosion of lionfish on the reefs.

Taming the lion
“Every time we put it on the menu someone who hasn’t had it tries it. [Then] they come back and say ‘who knew that this fish was so delicious?’” says Michael King of Kamalame Cay, a 14-room, all-inclusive resort on a private island near Staniard Creek, Andros.

In 2011, Kamalame, which caters to privacy-seeking celebrities and sophisticated travellers, debuted a five-course lionfish tasting event. From lionfish chowder served with fire-roasted Andros sweet corn to lionfish and ricotta ravioli with sweet potato puree and sage brown butter, the menu aims to not only whet the appetite but raise awareness.

“We decided if we were really going to be local then we had to follow the seasons, and if we’re following the seasons it meant that as grouper went out of season, it needed to be replaced with something that was interesting, and that was where lionfish came in,” says King.

“It’s a way to look at a fish that diners didn’t pay any attention to, that was doing all this damage, and raise awareness that this is good eating.”

At Kamalame Cay, the lionfish presents another way for the resort to offer its world travellers something different. “It’s not only that the fish is great eating, it’s also a very unusual experience because you’re not going to have it anywhere else,” says King. “We try to keep [dining] interesting as our clients have tried everything else you can imagine.”



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