Jaguar guapote, snakehead, peacock bass, and other exotic culinary surprises.
by A. D. Livingston

For better or worse, all manner of foreign fish have been loosed in North American waters. Some were stocked by various state fish and game commissions, but most, I suspect, got dumped out of home aquariums or escaped from fish farms serving the pet trade.

Because my experience with exotic fish has come mostly in Florida, my take may be somewhat narrow. But the main point should be quite clear. Since these alien fish are already here, anglers might as well take advantage of them. In most cases, catch and eat is the order of the day. Here are a few exotics to consider.

The oscar is a pretty fish, resembling, in profile, the saltwater tripletail. Originally from the upper Amazon River in Peru and Brazil, they’re now on the loose in Florida. As oscars are popular aquarium fish, they might well have become established elsewhere.

Anglers in the oscar’s native Amazon Basin value them as sportfish, and they may become better known as such in this country. Believe it or not, in some areas they already rival largemouth bass, hitting large artificial lures as well as live bait. Oscars grow to three pounds or better. They’re good eating, too, with flaky white meat and a delicate flavor. If one hits your spinnerbait, it’s a keeper.

Snakeheads, a vicious predator from Southeast Asia, are now on the prowl in Florida and as far north as Maryland and Virginia. Surprisingly, snakeheads are perhaps the most important market fish in Southeast Asia, partly because they live so long out of water, needing only a little dampness. In dry weather, they nose into the mud down to a depth of three feet. Fishermen locate them with a long knife and dig them out. Snakeheads like canals with overhanging shoreline vegetation, and so may surprise some bass anglers by hitting their plugs. Although most fishermen will cuss when they tangle with one, the snakehead grows to nine pounds or better, puts up a good fight, and is excellent table fare.

Laotian Snakehead Soup
Although you can cook snakeheads any way you want, American anglers might prefer to start with this milder presentation, a soup once served in the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang, according to Phia Sing’s Traditional Recipes of Laos. If the snakehead doesn’t yet prowl your favorite fishing hole, you might want to try the soup using any good fish with mild white flesh, such as a white perch.

1 snakehead about 2 feet long
1 tablespoon rice
5 scallions, chopped
several cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
Asian fish sauce to taste
coriander leaves (cilantro)
salt and pepper to taste
lemon wedges

Fillet the snakehead and cut it into one-inch chunks. Bring about two cups water to a boil, add the fish and rice, and simmer for 10 minutes. Add the chopped scallions, garlic, lemongrass, and fish sauce, and cook for 10 or 15 minutes. Taste, add a little salt if needed (depending on how much fish sauce you used), and ladle into serving bowls. Sprinkle with minced coriander leaves and freshly ground black pepper. Serve hot in bowls along with a few lemon wedges.
The Asian swamp eel sometimes sticks its head high out of the water and looks at you for what seems a long time. It sticks its sail into the bottom to help support the head lift, and it does so to breathe air—and probably sometimes just for the hell of it. This air-breathing ability makes the fish almost impossible to eradicate with chemicals once it has become established in a body of water. Swamp eels are now in Florida and slowly heading north, as they can also cross over land. A fierce predator, they feed on frogs, crawfish, worms, and small fish. Hence they’re often caught with live bait.

In Southeast Asia they’re a delicacy and, like the snakehead, are a useful market fish because they can live out of water for a long time. If you catch one, keep it in a wet burlap bag until you’re ready to cook. Below is a favorite recipe from Japan. Adventurous culinary sports might want to look for a recipe for Burmese fish bladder soup, owing, of course, to the swamp eel’s large air bladder.

Eel Teriyaki
Here’s one of my favorite ways to cook eel fillets on a charcoal grill or over hot coals from a campfire. Be sure to try this on American eels as well as with exotics.

2 to 4 eel fillets, cut into 4-inch lengths
1⁄2  cup good soy sauce
1⁄2  cup sake or vermouth
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
1⁄2  tablespoon Asian sesame oil
1⁄2  tablespoon grated ginger root
juice and grated zest of 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, crushed

Mix all the ingredients, adding the eel pieces last. Marinate for an hour or longer. Strain out the eel and drain. Heat the marinade to a light boil in a pan and save for basting. Rig for grilling, placing the rack about four inches over the hot coals or heat source. Grill for five minutes on each side, basting several times. Pile the eel off
to the side of the grill and let it coast awhile. Serve hot with rice, steamed vegetables, and sake.

Armored catfish were introduced from South and Central America into Florida several years ago. As the name implies, they have bony plates that cover the body like large scales. They’re caught on live bait and can grow quite large, and the flesh is edible—if you can get at it. In the Amazon basin, I understand, the natives toss the fish into a fire to crack the shell.

Another immigrant from Asia, the walking catfish, made news about 40 years ago when one was seen walking across a lakefront lawn in Florida. Apparently introduced from Bangkok by accident, they’re still around, but they haven’t proved to be so much of a problem as once feared.

The fish has air-breathing organs and propels itself on land by powerful pectoral spines. These spines can inflict a painful wound, so the next time you see one walking across the road pick it up carefully. Walking catfish reach 20-some-odd inches in length and are edible, but they’re hard to skin, and the skin stinks. Even so, they’re highly prized in Southeast Asia.

Grass carp, or white amur, have been stocked selectively in North America to help control aquatic plant growth. In some areas they’ve become something of a problem, but those in Florida are artificially produced sterile triploids and must be released when caught. They grow up to 75 pounds.

Attempts have been made to find a market for grass carp, but it’s a hard sell in North America, partly because the flaky white meat is very bony. Anglers don’t go for them, either. A few are caught while fishing for catfish or other species, but most are caught when, if we may believe reports on television, they jump into speeding boats.

In any case, the grass carp is eaten in Asia, and in Laos they’re consumed raw, thinly sliced, as an appetizer. I’ll take a little nuoc cham dipping sauce with mine, but be warned that some people frown on eating raw freshwater fish taken from Northern waters. Tapeworms.    

Tilapia, a popular and inexpensive market fish, was raised in ponds more than 2,000 years ago by the Egyptians. Today they’re farmed in warm waters around the world. In Florida, some areas have wild populations, and the mild white flesh is good, especially when freshly caught. The fillets are perfect for blackening with Cajun dust.

Known as the freshwater snapper, the Mayan cichlid are also called atomic sunfish, and with good reason. They attack a variety of artificial lures, including plugs and popping bugs. Weighing two pounds or so, they’re native to Central and South America and have been established in parts of Florida since 1983. There are no bag limits or size restrictions on this tasty fish, so catch all you want. The flesh is mild, white, flaky, and tasty.

Native to Central and South America, jaguar guapote tolerate poor quality water, making them ideal for some sluggish Florida canals. Growing up to 16 inches long, they’re caught on small artificial lures as well as on live bait. The jaguar guapote is purely excellent table fare.

Peacock bass, a beautiful and great sportfish from Central and South America, has become established in the canals and lakes in the Miami area. Like largemouth, they readily attack large topwater plugs. The peacock is excellent eating and can be cooked like largemouth or smallmouth bass.

Unlike most exotic species in American waters, the peacock was stocked by the state of Florida. It isn’t likely to become established farther north of Miami, because it can’t survive in cooler waters. But as far as I’m concerned, peacocks would be a good addition to almost any public fishing hole. Anglers who snort at this ought to remember that the brown trout is an “exotic,” having been stocked in this country from Europe back in 1883. Not all exotics are bad! n

A. D. Livingston lives in Wewahitchka, Florida, where he eats whatever he catches. With this column he stands guilty of double-dipping, as he adapted it from his forthcoming Freshwater Fish Cookbook, if nothing don’t happen.
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