There was a time when the idea of eating lionfish filled many with fear and doubt, but these venomous, spiny fish are finding their way more and more onto dinner plates in Cayman.
Several restaurants now offer the tasty critter to its diners and demand is growing.
From the Taste of Cayman earlier this year, to post-culling tournament dinners and, most recently, at an open day at the George Town Library to mark the 25th anniversary of Cayman’s marine parks, people are giving this dangerous dining a try.
At the library event, Michael’s Genuine prepared the fish caught over a two-day lionfish tournament and served it up to the divers and fishermen and women who caught them, and to members of the public wanting to try it out.
Michael’s Genuine’s chef Thomas Tennant, serves up the fish regularly at the restaurant in Camana Bay. Whenever a diver shows up with lionfish for sale, Tennant pays $4 per pound.
He said more and more diners are asking for lionfish, either to try it for the first time or because they’ve liked what they’ve tasted before. He prepares the fish in a variety of different ways – his escovitch is popular and many tried it when he prepared it for Taste of Cayman.
He also makes a Lionfish Summer Roll with lionfish tempura and rice paper.
Michael’s Genuine has also started ‘curing’ lionfish, using salt, sugar, lemon juice and white wine.
Tennant says he accepts lionfish that are at least four inches long. “Anything smaller than that, I barely see any meat,” he says.
As well as dealing with lionfish because they make some very tasty dishes that are appreciated by his customers, Thomas knows that creating a demand for the fish among Cayman’s diners will also help clear the reefs of this invasive species.
Lionfish have voracious appetites and can wipe out a juvenile population of reef fish in just weeks.
Another restaurant serving up lionfish is Stingers at Comfort Suites. Ambassador Divers, which has organised several lionfish tournaments in Cayman, is also on that site, and there’s always plenty of divers willing and able to catch the lionfish. The lionfish are often brought back directly by the restaurant’s chef Jen Skrinska who goes out on the dive boat four or five times a week.
“I go out on the boat and I’ll often just make cerviche on the boat for the divers,” she says. “If we catch enough of them, I’ll bring the rest back.”
If she can’t go on the boat, she sends a ‘cerviche kit’, so the crew can make the dish for the divers on board.
Lionfish is not permanently on Stingers menu, but Chef Jen says it’s definitely worthwhile asking if the kitchen has any lionfish when you come for dinner or lunch there. She plans to start making lionfish sashimi in the future.
Lionfish are also finding their way onto diners’ plates in Tukka in East End where Chef Ron Hargreaves serves up a delicious lionfish cerviche. Just inside the front door, diners can get a look at live lionfish up close as he keeps a few alive in a fish tank beside the lobster tank.
He prepares the lionfish, usually dropped off by Ocean Frontiers divers, with chilli, avocado and peppers.
Again, lionfish aren’t actually on the menu, but it’s worth asking your waiter if there are any available on the day you visit.
In West Bay, diners can also get their hands on the de-finned and de-spined lionfish. Cobalt Coast serves them up when divers bring them by. Nancy Easterbrook of Dive Tech, which has a dive shop at Cobalt Coast, said her company takes divers out on lionfish culling trips and then bring the fish back to the restaurant to be cooked up.
“Several times a month, we go out culling with guests and come back and cook the lionfish up and do a demonstration on how to handle them. Then the fish are prepared and guests get to try a sampler plate,” says Easterbrook.
Restaurants on the Sister Islands are also doing their bit for the environment, and for their diners’ growing desire to try the delicate white-meat fish.
Every Friday, guests at Pirates Point in Little Cayman get to sip champagne and feast on Lionfish Sushi prepared by Chef Jeff at owner Gladys Howard’s home before going to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner where the fare is usually freshly caught tuna, as well as a choice of other dishes.
Lionfish are, unfortunately, still plentiful throughout the Islands, as they have no natural predators – other than divers. So, why not kill two birds (fish?) with one stone and enjoy a lionfish dinner while helping to save our reefs?
Real Dangerous Dining
Although some may view the lionfish as dangerous dining, there are many other dishes out there that can be truly deadly.
Probably the most famous dangerous dish, fugu is sashimi made from blowfish. However, if not prepared correctly, it can be deadly. The dish has been banned in its native Japan at various times during history, and may only be prepared by specially trained chefs.
If your tastes run to the exotic, you may encounter sannakji – raw baby octopus. This dish is popular in Korea, and is made with live baby octopus, cut into small pieces and served immediately with sesame seeds or sesame oil for seasoning.
If served fresh, the pieces are still moving around on your plate, and therein lies the problem – the suction cups on the arms are still active, and can stick to the mouth or throat, causing the diner to choke.
Somewhat closer to home, ackee can also be very dangerous. If the fruit is picked before ripe, it contains a chemical that can cause blood sugar to drop to dangerously low levels.
Although not dangerous in moderation, the overconsumption of fast food can be blamed for many health problems, from high cholesterol to high blood pressure and diabetes. If anyone was keeping a tally of food fatalities, fast food would beat fugu any day of the week