They might not be pretty but these carnivorous bottom-dwellers are up there with the tastiest fish in the sea, says Clarissa Hyman
The monkfish is never going to win any prizes in a Miss Marine Universe competition. It has a face only a mother could love and even then one can imagine mummy monkfish wondering if there was some sort of mix-up in the underwater maternity ward. Still, there is always a silver lining and once you get past its gruesome features, the reward is an uncommonly fantastic-tasting fish.
Its name is something of a mystery. Some say it is because the head resembles the cowl or pointed hood of a monk’s vestments. But the fish are carnivorous and bolshy, the total opposite of meek and mild contemplatives. Its head is startlingly large and disconcertingly out of proportion to its body; its enormous mouth is edged with ferociously sharp, inward-pointing teeth like a steel trap and its menacing jaws are topped by something that looks like a strange fishing rod. This is a specially modified dorsal ray with which they can entice prey, which might explain its other name of anglerfish, as it lurks on the seabed dangling its ‘rod’ while waiting for lunch.
Another of the monkfish’s strange characteristics is its ability to camouflage itself. Its tinted and mottled skin looks like stones and gravel, and along its body there are flexible spines, tags and fringes that sway in the water to mimic small algae and fish. Even more extraordinary, they glow in the dark so that unsuspecting victims swim close by in the mistaken belief that the monkfish’s gigantic head is actually a protective rock and – snap!
The size of the monkfish’s mouth and jaws and its stomach capacity means it can catch quite large fish alongside the tiddlers it enjoys as hors d’oeuvres.
Its monstrous head comes in at well over half its body weight, which has been known to reach 32kg and measure 1.8m in length. Their cheeks are much prized by the Spanish, as is the liver which can make a meal in itself. Chef Mark Hix compares the organ to foie gras and says it can be sliced and pan-fried in much the same way, or even made into a terrine. He suggests serving it on a monkfish steak with a truffle sauce or wild mushrooms.
In Japan, the livers are much appreciated for sashimi or else are rubbed in salt, soaked in sake, steamed and then served alongside vegetables, herbs and a citrus- based sauce to create the creamy delicacy of ankimo. Its head also makes for an excellent soup or stock, and the tails are perfectly meaty and delicious.
Monkfish are found in very deep water and shallower, in-shore areas. They’re fished from the south of England to the north of Scotland, as well as off the west coast of Ireland. Females mature at around nine years and males at around six years but avoid them during the spawning season in late spring and early summer.
Because of their natural high water content they need very little liquid when cooking. They roast well – especially over charcoal – or can be poached, steamed, fried or grilled and have the advantage of holding its shape. Monkfish is also pretty easy to prepare as it only has one central bone.
Before cooking, the fine grey membrane should be removed but this is simple as it peels off easily from the head to the tail. If it’s left on, the layers will shrink during cooking and toughen the exterior. The flesh is white, firm and mild and often compared to lobster. At one point, monkfish was a cheaper substitute for Dublin Bay prawns (remember when scampi in a basket was all the rage?), although it is now highly prized in its own right.
The monkfish is part of quite a large family. There are more than 150 species worldwide, including stargazers in Australia and New Zealand (which are similar but have bones rather than cartilage), as well as the North American goosefish which is caught in the west of the Atlantic.
There are two species of monkfish caught commercially in UK and EU waters, white-bellied monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) and black-bellied monkfish (Lophius budegassa). They are slow-growing and can live for a long time but sadly their increased popularity has led to a decline in numbers, not least because they have been subject to beam trawling as opposed to the more sustainable gillnet catch method. Another issue, according to chef Nathan Outlaw, is that monkfish die when brought on board and cannot be returned to the water if deemed too small (in terms of minimum weight rather than size because of its unusual body shape).
The Marine Conservation Society says stock levels are generally unknown and fisheries need more stringent monitoring but those caught by gillnet or fixed net tend to be larger and are more likely to be mature, making them the more environmentally friendly choice. Consumers need to try and find out if the fish is from vessels involved in the Seafish Responsible Fishing Scheme or from those involved in Project 50%, which uses more selective nets to reduce discards (always consult goodfishguide.org the MCS’s website).
The monkfish is perhaps a lesson in life: not to judge by appearance alone. Yes, it is Caliban-ugly with big teeth and looks like it could bite your foot off but this ‘sea devil’ is a prize worth the price. Just make sure it is a sustainable one.
Season: October to May (avoid spawning season)
Minimum size: 70cm
Omega-3 count: low
Fishing method: gillnet or fixed net
Catch range: north of Scotland, west of Ireland, English Channel, Bristol Channel, South-East Ireland
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