Monday, April 18, 2011

A "Fish" called Cucaracha del Mar

Well, it lives in the ocean but is not exactly a fish; its name just reminded me of the movie title A Fish Called Wanda, where a water creature also had a name so unrelated to its nature.
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.
Chef Rick Bayless from Chicago was the “Star” of the event and thanks to his popularity, and 10 of Mexico’s top chefs, about 3000 guests showed up for the 4 days of food and festivities. With combined efforts from the Mexican Tourist bureau (Consejo de Promoción Touristica de Mexico), Ixtapa/Zihuateneo tourist office,
Food & Wine magazine and about 60 underwriting companies from both sides of the border, a spectacular festival came together. It can be done, si se puede. The attending guest came equally from both countries, including a good mix of other nationalities. Nothing like food, wine, festivities and great company to bring people together in a joyous celebration. When I become queen of the land, it will be law to have food festivals instead of wars.
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
Lila/Shaw Lash, who left me so abruptly to join the Bayless camp in Chicago, was also there with them. In typical Bayless manner, after our arrival we all went immediately on a hunt for the best markets and food in Zihuatenjo. This is when we were introduced to the cucaracha del mar. Our driver Antonio Méndez López, who spoke the most eloquent English which he said he learned as a 10 year old from an Australian sailor he met in the Zihuatenjo harbor (I really wonder about this sailor’s story), quickly realized that we were looking for the real local food experience. On a remote dirt road in the Colonia Viejo of Zihuatenejo he parked next to a building that did not remotely resemble a restaurant. The only give-away were several, parked fancy SUVs from different states of Mexico. But after we climbed a flight of stairs, a large open and airy restaurant welcomed us to “El Tiburon” (The Shark),

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

There is nothing like a feast prepared with care, love, honesty and tradition. Meals like this will survive all the food trends that come and go.

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