The Whole Fish

big fish

If there’s anything I’ve learned in years of travel to the islands, it’s that most West Indians are reserved to visitors; however, if approached correctly, they are warm and friendly.   For example, if you travel to a Spanish or French-speaking island, some minimal effort to speak the language goes a long way.  It need be no more than “Hola!” or “Merci.”  In Puerto Rico, I almost automatically get the benefit of the doubt because my first name, Eva, translates directly — as if there was any question of that, even normally stern TSA agents at San Juan airport were addressing me cheerfully as “Miss Ey-ba,” dispensing altogether with my surname.

Another way to endear yourself is to embrace the local cuisine — and not with wrinkly-nosed skepticism.  I don’t have to work very hard at that, because I truly enjoy West Indian foods.  Ordering souse and johnnycake in the Bahamas, or curried goat in Anguilla, wins over the hardest cases.  And, for some reason, whole fish is a barometer of culinary adventurousness.

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Does this mouthful of sharp teeth put you off?

When I ordered a whole steamed fish at Max’s Conch Bar on Long Island in the Bahamas, the bartender said Americans never bothered.   Last time Rick and I were in St. Martin, I was drawn into my favorite restaurant in Grand Case, Bistrot Caraibes, by the “whole snapper” special on the chalkboard.  The owner politely told us that the server would happily filet the fish for me, but I waved that off.  As soon as I did so, relations thawed noticeably — again with the observation that Americans rarely ask for the whole fish.  Which is interesting, since I’ve had whole fish many times in the US, from restaurants in Baltimore’s Little Italy, to Annapolis Yacht Club.

Of course, in American restaurants, you’re most likely to be served “refined” fish like bronzino.  Down island, in addition to snapper, you’ll be offered more exotic stuff like triggerfish (like we had at the late, lamented C&F in Roadtown, Tortola, after choosing the very fish we would eat) or parrotfish.

On this trip to the Spanish Virgins, I was lucky enough to indulge in my affection for whole fish at 3 of the 4 meals we ate out during our sailing charter.  The first arguably set the highest bar — whole grouper at one of the kiosks at Flamenco Beach, for a mere $10.  Both Rick and I indulged.

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Pico de Gallo may be the name of the kiosk, but the pescado entero (mero) was sublime.

On the same day, the Dinghy Dock restaurant in Dewey was offering a whole snapper.  After I picked all of the delicate white flesh off the bones, saving the fish cheeks for last, I had the “fish chips” for dessert.  Cooking the whole fish renders the fins and tail crispy and entirely edible.  After I was done, I was invited to toss the carcass to the carnivorous tarpon swimming off the dock.

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Feeding frenzy of demon-eyed (thanks to my camera’s flash) 4-foot tarpon.

Finally, at Duffy’s in Esperanza (on the malecon, in Vieques), the special was whole parrotfish.  We’d already warmed our server up by ordering Medalla, the local beer, and the local rum punch (the Viequense), so by the time we ordered parrotfish, we were very nearly family.  I’d never eaten parrotfish before, spending most of my effort admiring the rainbow colored reef-dweller while snorkeling.  Parrotfish sport an intimidating set of choppers because they feed off coral polyps; it’s the parrotfish’s … er … excretory process … that helps create those stunning beaches composed of pinky-white ground coral.  Needless to say, lunch was quite satisfying.

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Before and after, the little parrotfish died a noble death.  He was accompanied by tostones and beans and rice (this time, garbanzos — unless a specific type of bean is named, you’ll get whatever kind of beans the kitchen has handy, which is just fine with me).

Now that we are headed to the Bahamas, I’m looking forward to sampling the invasive lionfish.  These non-indigenous fish have been introduced to the waters and are the subject of an active attempt to eradicate them, as they have no predators and are wreaking havoc in the local ecosystem.  And I hear they are delicious.

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