We're not lion(fish) about how yummy this invasive species is!

The genus name, Pterois, pronounced (tare-oh-eese) is defined in modern dictionaries as simply “Poseidon Speared a Lionfish’.’ The word Pterois comes from the Greek word “pteroeis” meaning “feathered” or “winged’’ and the Ancient Greek word, (pteron), meaning “feather’’ or “wing’’ says Scott Harrell, executive director of the World Lionfish Hunters Association.

Seeing the Sargasso seaweed hitting our Barbadian shores much to the horror and dismay of our tourism industry, I was quick to point out after research that this “weed’’ was indeed not only edible in salads once washed of its salt, but useful as a fertiliser. When the African snail invaded, much to the chagrin of gardeners and farmers; I found out it was indeed a delightful morsel eaten from northern Africa to Europe and I longed to taste. Similarly, as the name “lionfish’’ began making the rounds as “unfriendly to the eco-system of Caribbean reefs,’’ my interest peaked and I embarked on devouring information.

Once discovering its edibility, all I could think of was getting it on a dish in front of me for tasting. So stuck we are in our island mode, we sometimes do not see the forest for the trees and as a people we complain before coming up with simple solutions…and food is sure a delicious one. All of the above have become part of my “foodie repertoire’’ and I am the richer for it. Seaweed, picked up fresh and early before it reaches the shores, makes for a delightful Japanese dish. I use it dried in the sun for my kitchen “herb garden.’’

The African snail, snatched unceremoniously in the dark of night, purged with beer, cooked in garlic butter, has captured my adoration in equal measure to the fine and expensive “escargot.’’ And now my new favourite seafood is the most amazing  “predator’’ of all—the handsome wicked lionfish. Native of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans (i.e., the Indo-Pacific region), lionfish have travelled the world, reaching our warm tropical waters. Belonging to the scorpion fish family, it is called by a multitude of names— butterfly cod, firefish or red firefish, devil firefish, lionfish or red lionfish, ornate butterfly-cod, peacock lionfish,  scorpion volitans, zebrafish and turkeyfish, with dragon fish, poisson lion, pez diablo (Spanish for devil fish), pez león, korall duive, and peixe-leão sounding a little more exotic.

Two species of  lionfish  were introduced into the Atlantic Ocean via the US aquarium trade in 1980—Pterois volitans (red lionfish) and Pterois miles (devil firefish). It did not take them long to embrace their new “wild freedom’’ with fervour, the red lionfish being the one most spotted in our Caribbean seas. Lionfish have been found in water depths from one foot to 1,000 feet, their habitat having no boundaries—hard bottom sands, coral and artificial reefs, sea-grasses and even mangroves—and their hunger for the finer things in life is never assuaged. Prolific love-makers that become sexually mature in less than a year and live for 15 to 18 with no predators, lionfish reproduce faster than rabbits. The female spawns around 2,000 to 15,000 eggs held together in a gelatinous mass (over  two million eggs per year) dispersed by currents, and all that is important to these eggs is a male lionfish for fertilisation.

Nature, as always, has seen to this significant aspect of life by making the male lionfish highly territorial—surrounding himself with a harem of several females for the sole purpose of his own macho fertilizing pleasures, of which he makes no secret and is stubbornly protective.  As the larval duration is a mere 26 days and no mothering or babysitting is required, the female is as “happy as pappy’’ with her circumstance. Another little titbit: in times of food scarcity, lionfish can live without food for up to three months losing only 10 per cent of their body mass, their metabolism coming to a screaming halt without getting in the way of their erotic travel of great distances.

Take all the above information, put it into the proverbial melting pot of ocean-knowledge and we in the Caribbean can come to one conclusion—these illegal aliens are on one continuous reproductive exploration of our beautiful island reefs, their seemingly insatiable appetites of making babies perhaps matched only by their gourmand desire to see every type of island fish in sight (some 70-plus species) including invertebrates and molluscs landing freely at their personal gourmet tables, swallowed voraciously with mucho gusto through their inordinately wide mouths made especially to swallow large prey whole, thank you very much. In fact, it is believed that a single small lionfish could reduce the number of juvenile native fish on any given reef by 79 per cent in five weeks.  A lionfish nirvana, if there ever was one.

The sudden awareness of the dangers of lionfish to our tourism product through the destruction of our reefs and of our fishing industry has finally brought about some interest in adding lionfish to our diet. Although lionfish are not aggressive (in fact, they almost sit quietly), foolish even in their attitude of not caring much if they are caught, many fishermen are still not grasping the importance of making them easily available to the average person (i.e. the cheaper they are sold, the faster they will be consumed and culled) using the fear of the lionfish “sting’’ as the excuse to charge “celebrity’’ prices for these stunningly beautiful creatures that flaunt their 18 venomous spines, 13 located along the spine in the dorsal fins with one short spine in the leading edge of each of the pelvic fins and three short spines in the leading edge of the anal fin.

But there is hope. With an extraordinary concentration of omega-3 fatty acids higher than most common table fish (such as grouper, snapper, tuna, dolphin or mahi mahi, just to name a few) whilst low in heavy metals like mercury and lead, found for instance in the northern barracuda,  lionfish flesh is said to have aphrodisiac properties.

Throughout my travels around the Caribbean I have learned one thing: the words “health’’ and “aphrodisiac’’ are like bells to money, so once they are used in the marketing of lionfish, I am confident our fishermen and fish processors will consider delving immediately into the a full lionfish industry. This predator will definitely meet its match then—the harsh sting of the lionfish not even coming into the equation as our health “gurus’’ embrace its goodness and our island men, not short in their quest for extra sexual prowess, follow suit.

Needless to say, the venomous spines need addressing. If inadvertently stung by the (not poisonous and not deadly) lionfish, simply remove the spines imbedded in the flesh, disinfect the wound, apply hot water (not scalding) or freeze to denature the venom, and then control the bleeding. If still not comfortable, seek medical help particularly if any of these nasty extreme reactions manifest themselves.  According to the National Ocean Service (NOAA): “a venomous sting that can last for days and cause extreme pain, sweating, respiratory distress, and even paralysis. Lionfish venom glands are located within two grooves of the spine. The venom is a combination of protein, a neuromuscular toxin and a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine (pronunciation: ah-see-toe-coe’-lean). After the spine punctures the skin, the venom enters the wound when exposed to the venom glands within the grooves of the spine.”

Further, the World Lionfish Hunters Association says: “There have been no known human fatalities as a result of a lionfish envenomation. There are areas in the eastern islands of the Caribbean Sea that are considered ‘hot spots’ for ciguatera fish poisoning and over 400 different fish species are known to carry ciguatoxin that can cause ciguatera. It has been documented through scientific study that lionfish can carry the ciguatera toxin, too, thus making them potentially unsafe to eat in those specific geographic areas of concern. It should be noted that there is not a single documented or suspected case in which a person has contracted ciguatera from eating lionfish.”

Fresh lionfish venom will not cause poisoning if ingested, although an allergic reaction is possible if one is susceptible, but certainly, once cooked, lionfish venom in the spines is rendered inactive. For those that the above extreme information makes nervous, the absolute truth is, once proper care is taken in nailing the non-aggressive-to-humans lionfish, the only thing we need to learn is how to efficiently clean and prepare same for the many delightful recipes now produced by our very creative Caribbean chefs, such as Danny O’Shea of The Chopping Board Kitchen at Mojo (Barbados) or even Culinary Executive Chef Nigel Thompson (Jamaica). See recipes on the following pages.

In the kitchen, either lie fish flat on cutting board so venomous spines lay flat out of harm’s reach OR cut off venomous spines with scissors and proceed—remove  insides, peel skin carefully with a very sharp knife, filet. The flesh of the lionfish is white, light but firm in texture; its taste exquisite, somewhere between a thin sliver of “dolphin’’ or mahi mahi and grouper, with its own distinctive buttery flavour. As there is no truth in lionfish flesh being harmful, but there is in the saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold,’’ it is indeed a perfect fish for use in ceviche, sashimi or sushi—even bottled as “Island Roll Mops.’’ To the many artisans looking for new and innovative ideas, think of a line of creative works (jewellery, installations) using the spine, bones and even scales—a good way to keep this sexy predator well culled without having to eradicate it totally. A win-win situation for all.https://www.macocaribbeanliving.com/recipes/lionfish-fillets-with-mango-salsa-and-watermelon-mash/

This is an edited version of an excerpt from Barbados Bu’n-Bu’n—My Culinary Adventure, by Rosemary Parkinson. Check out her yummy recipe here as well!

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