I got to know about this curious delicacy while attending the first Food & Wine Festival in Mexico, held in Ixtapa/Zihuateneo from March 26 - 28. The event was produced by the originators of the widely successful Food & Wine Festival in Aspen and other cities in the US. This was also my first visit to this part of costal Mexico and I was not disappointed. What a breathtakingly beautiful coastline.
Attending the festival gave me the opportunity to re-visit with Rick and Deann Bayless with whom I collaborated 8 wonderful years in Chicago at their amazing award wining Mexican restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolpbampo. My former San Miguel de Allende food buddy
the favorite seafood place of the in-the-know crowd. When we had just about ordered everything on the menu, Antonio casually asked if we had ever had cucaracha del mar? Cockroach of the ocean? What? He had our attention instantly. He ordered a serving for us, as this dish was not listed on the menu. Antonio said the treat we were in for was much like abalone, a mollusk, but much, much smaller, more like the seize of your pinky. When a full plate came to our table, bathed in a classic seafood cocktail salsa, garnished with avocado slices and served with crisp tortilla chips, we dug in without hesitation. They were very delicious, sweet, soft, but still with a chewy texture and a flavor reminiscent of the ocean. Rick likened the flavor to the west coast sea urchin. Rick, an avid Twitterer, immediately posted this new discovery and a suggestive response shot back: this thing needs a new press agent. “Yes”, it’s not a good name for something so delicious. In some other areas of Mexico it is also called lengua de perro, (dog’s tongue), not exactly an improvement. But do we really want to name it something more appetizing? Should we leave this delicacy to the brave? We sadly remember the “Patagonian Tooth Fish”, re-named “Chilean Sea Bass”, which is now facing extinction because of its clever new-name marketing campaign.
In the meantime Deann was Googeling our dinner fare on her iPhone (oh, the glory of global connectedness) and here is the scoop: it is a mollusk found widely in costal seawaters around the world. Polyplacophora is its Latin name, meaning: poly = many; plac = plate; phor = carry, i.e.: bearer of many plates; similar to the shell plates of an armadillo. ”The polyplacophorans, commonly known as chitons, are often considered by scientists to be the most primitive of all existing mollusks. Strictly marine, the majority of the chiton species inhabit rocky seashore environments where their low dome-shaped shells are well suited to withstanding the violent serge of ocean waves. They all cling tenaciously to the hard substratum and if dislodged from its rock, will roll up into a ball to protect their fleshy under surface. This also allows it to roll around safely in the waves until it can reattach itself to an other rock”. They are vegetarian and feed on algae. We learned that it is much treasured in the Philippines; there it is packaged and frozen for shipping worldwide.
On the Zihuatenejo beaches the fishermen wait for the low tide and then search for the creatures under rocks. They seem to cluster together and, if lucky, a harvest of a 100 can be garnered within an hour. The fishermen get paid for them by the dozen, usually 50. Pesos; in the restaurants an order of 12 starts at 70. Pesos. Considering its labor intensive means of harvesting, (each one has to pried loose from the rocks with a screwdriver), it is a very affordable special treat. In our excitement over our new discovery we almost forgot about the rest of the meal. It was a spectacular feast. Everything was prepared with care and a wonderful balance of spices. Grilled red snapper, coconut shrimp, devilish shrimp, seviche of mixed seafood, fried octopus, all served on a huge platter beautifully garnished with avocado, cucumbers, oranges and mango. A basket with freshly made tortillas, wrapped in a crisp white napkin with "El Tiburon"embroidered on it in delicate cross stitch, helped us mop-up all this goodness