Snakeheads on Maryland's menu?
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.
When man puts northern snakeheads -- a nasty invasive fish from Asia -- into Maryland's waterways, chefs make sushi, stir fries and grilled fillets.
These days, watermen are getting more per pound for snakeheads ($2.50) than striped bass ($1.50) as a result of a Department of Natural Resources marketing program that makes a connection between supply and demand.
Maryland is trying to contain the spread of the fish, first detected in a Crofton pond nearly a decade ago and now found in many Potomac River tributaries. A prize giveaway by Bass Pro Shops and a tournament failed to make a dent in the burgeoning population.
Enter Steve Vilnit, DNR's fish marketing czar, who is trying to help the commercial industry find new outlets for their catch. Snakeheads are usually found in the nets of watermen targeting blue catfish.
Vilnit is contacting innovative chefs in the region to see if they might be willing to put snakeheads on the menu. Baltimore's Alewife restaurant was the first to get on board, and has figured out how to make the fish just another white meat.
"It's just like any other fish -- salmon, mahi-mahi -- it's just kind of an uglier-looking fish," says sous chef Eli Morris. "Sauteing it, it's just like eating chicken, I hate to say that."
Depending on how it's prepared, snakehead is a bit firmer than other white fish, which means it stands up to a grill better. But it's sweet, mild and clean. In the hands of a great deep-fry cook, it might be a great substitute for cod in a platter of fish and chips. More sustainable, too.
Head chef Chad Wells, an avid angler from childhood who has been out on Maryland's tributaries stalking snakeheads, says he would create a different recipe, depending on which section of the fish was being used: sauteing tail pieces, frying the fillets from the middle section and grilling portions near the head.
"It cooks fast, as fast as a pepper," he says. "If I were stir frying it, I would cook the vegetables first and then the fish."
Wells says he's pressuring wholesalers, like ProFish, to get him more snakeheads and talking them up with watermen.
"When I can get them, we're going to have them on the menu," he says. "Watermen are looking for snakeheads hard. If we can create a demand, it will be good for them."
Morris says it's important to throw off the sci-fi stories about snakeheads and see them for what they are: dinner.
"If somebody went out fishing or took their kid fishing and lined a snakehead, they absolutely could take it home and prepare it they way they would a fish bought at a supermarket," he says.
Snakeheads are only a sliver of the market now, but as wholesalers get more comfortable with the new product and other fish become more scarce, they may take their place in restaurants and fish stores alongside Maryland striped bass.
"This is a way we can make a difference," says Vilnit. "Every fish they take out of the water is one less invasive fish harming the habitat of native fish. And every fish the watermen sell helps their bottom line."
2002 Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston