Samui Wining & Dining
Looks Aren’t Everything

Getting to know the unique, but aesthetically challenged, monkfish.

 

2-3It’s just as well we don’t always choose our food for how attractive it is. If we did, we’d miss out on things like pineapple, oysters, prawns, liver, ginger, artichokes or even the humble passion fruit which doesn’t look so appealing with its wrinkly skin. So when it comes to monkfish, with its oversized head; wide mouth with fang-like teeth; a narrow body out of proportion to its huge head; spikes; fat lips; huge paddlelike pectoral fins; and mottled brown warty skin, we need to just be grateful to the first person who discovered it was good for eating, because this fish isn’t going to be winning any beauty contests anytime soon.

      Monkfish is the English name given to a few species of fish found in the northwest Atlantic, the anglerfish (genus Lophius) and the angel shark (genus Squatina). Members of the Lophius genus are sometimes called goosefish, fishingfrogs, frog-fish, and sea-devils. The angel shark family are a similar shape to the anglerfish, but are actually unrelated because they are elasmobranchs (cartilaginous creatures such as sharks, rays and skates). As far as names go, monkfish sounds a darn side more edible than sea-devil or frog-fish, what do you think?

      The genus Lophius usually has long spikes (or filaments if you prefer the scientific term), sprouting from its head and back. The longest one on top of its head, can be angled to hang in front of the fish’s mouth, and is used as a lure to attract its prey, which the monkfish then greedily swallows whole. It isn’t fussy about what it eats - cod, lobster and even sea birds are all possible options for lunch. The jaw action is an automatic reflex triggered by anything touching this long spike. So, if you experience a moment of sympathy for this less than attractive fish, I would highly recommend not stroking the top of its head!

      They do have a reputation for being cannibals, however, this only seems to apply to the larger fish. Females typically reach around 99cm living to roughly 12 years old and the males only reach 88cm and live to around nine. You see? Males aren’t always the stronger of the species in this world!

       The only part of this fish that is edible is the tail, and in some countries the liver, which is considered a delicacy. The fish is available all year round and its meat is dense and sweet and has been compared to lobster. It was, at one time, even referred to as the ‘poor man’s lobster’. It is low in saturated fat which makes it a healthy addition to your dinner plate. However, as with anything, once it became popular and the demand increased, so did the prices. Today prices for monkfish can easily exceed lobster and other top quality seafood.

       Preparation is easy, the outer loose skin is easily stripped away, as is the pink, glassy membrane underneath which can shrink around the meat when cooking and make the normally tender meat seem tough. Luckily there is only one huge central bone to contend with, and once this is removed, there aren’t any others. The fish is sold in markets either whole with its head removed or the meat is sold as steaks.

      The tender meat lends itself to soups and stews but can also be stir-fried, barbecued and pan fried. It is, however, best cooked with a little moisture. It goes well with flavours such as chilli, soy, chorizo, smoked paprika, sesame and Parma ham. It is one of the fish used in the traditional French Bouillabaisse or fish broth. If you’re making this dish and your market is sold out of monkfish, you can substitute with snapper, sea bass, halibut, or sea scallops.

       A great way to cook this unique tasting fish is to cut it into two centimetre thick pieces and sear them quickly in olive oil. Remove them from the pan and make a sauce using the pan oil, with chopped prosciutto, canned tomatoes, fresh garlic and chilli. Put the monkfish back in the sauce, and let it soften while you cook some pasta. When done, drain the pasta and serve with the delicious sauce and fish on top. Nice and easy.

      As with any fish nowadays, the question of sustainability is an issue. Up until the 1970s, monkfish was considered a trash fish when caught in trawler nets in the US and was used as scampi in the UK and Europe. But in the 1980s, it started to be commercially fished in response to demand. In 1999, scientists in America determined that monkfish had dropped below sustainable levels and a plan was made to rebuild the stocks using a strategy that managed the harvest levels and allowed the stocks to replenish themselves. By 2008, it was back up to acceptable levels and is now monitored closely.

         In recreational fishing, size limits exist and in some places individuals are not allowed to catch monkfish for commercial purposes. This just goes to show that with some rules and monitoring, it is easy to recover a diminishing species.

         Monkfish is served in a few hotels and resorts here on Samui. Why not give it a go, but try hard to concentrate on the taste and not to picture its face as you take your first mouthful!

         

Colleen Setchell


 


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