Roly-Poly Snakeheads

How can something this delicious be bad for us?


In July, Interior Secretary Gale Norton called for a ban on importing the infamous snakehead fish. For those of you who haven't been following the story: The snakehead can breathe air, walk on land (or slither there, anyway) and survive outside the water for up to three days. It also has a voracious appetite, and regulators are presently poisoning a pond in Crofton, Maryland, where the Chinese fish have been spawning. The fish-killers worry that the hungry beasts would otherwise crawl to other bodies of water and clean out every native species they find.

At this point, it's hardly news that the putatively free-trading Bush administration would want to clamp down on yet another import. Environmentally speaking, Norton's proposal seems rather excessive: She wants to halt live imports of 28 snakehead species, not just the northern snakehead that's been multiplying in Maryland, even though only a few of those varieties are likely to be actual threats. It would be much less intrusive if the law let people keep snakeheads in their aquariums and stepped in only when they put other ecosystems at risk, as a Crofton man did when he released his previously private snakeheads into someone else's pond. A blanket ban might be easier to enforce, of course, but —

Oh, all right. I have a bias I haven't told you about, and it doesn't have anything to do with free-trade principles or with a greenish sympathy for the fish. I want fresh snakehead to be available here in America because it tastes good.

I've suspected this since the beginning of the Crofton saga, but I wasn't able to confirm it until last Thursday. The Yin Yankee Café, a fine restaurant in Annapolis that specializes in Asian and quasi-Asian food, had acquired some snakeheads from a supplier in New York's Chinatown. (Yin Yankee owner Kim Klopcic had jokingly requested some while putting in another order, and was surprised to be asked, "How many?") The chef, Jerry Trice, didn't know the traditional Chinese recipe for snakehead soup, so he adapted a rockfish dish, serving the carnivorous sea creature in banana leaves with a tasty Indonesian curry.

Naturally, I had to try this. I wasn't disappointed. The meat was sweet and had a pleasant texture, and it absorbed the sauce's spicy flavor very well. It was a bit on the bony side — OK, it was way over on the bony side — but that's just a matter of trial and error: Trice said he planned to fillet the next batch of snakeheads, thus eliminating the problem, and he is composing several other bone-free recipes as well, including various snakehead-based sushi rolls and a crouton made from the fish's skin.

I don't usually hold up Singapore as a model for the United States to follow, but that Asian city-state imports about 1,200 tons of snakeheads a year; according to an Associated Press report, three local fish farms raise it as well. Nor is such appreciation for the fish restricted to Singapore: Across eastern Asia, the snakehead is eaten not just for its flavor but also for its reputed curative properties. I don't know if the latter will stand up in the court of medical science, but I do know that when I went to the Yin Yankee Café, I had a sore throat, and that not long after I left, I didn't. Of course, the soreness was dying down anyway, and I kept sneezing and coughing all weekend, but none of that matters to me. I credit the fish.