Why don't Kiwis eat barracouta?

Last updated 05:00 20/08/2014
Barracouta  landscape
briangratwicke / Flickr

OFTEN UNEATEN: A barracouta fish, also known as a snoek.

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A friend from South Africa told me the other day that snoek (barracouta) from New Zealand had become available in South African in supermarkets.

One man’s fish is another man’s poisson (French), or should I say POISON? Indeed Kiwis extreme distaste for the barracouta beggars belief. We’d not been in NZ long when I spoke to a seaman unloading ‘couta at the wharf in Timaru.

“I’d like to buy one”, I offered.

“We don’t sell, they all go north as cray-bait. Take one if you wish.”

My earliest memory of this fine fish was off the African Cape coast 48 years ago. I’d joined a fishing boat that specialised in catching snoek with lines and by the end of the morning several hundred lay on deck. Filleted and gutted by opening them up butterfly style we covered them centimetres deep in coarse salt before being piling them one on top of the other for three hours as we steamed back to port.

The salt allowed sufficient moisture to be absorbed from the flesh to prevent decomposition. Once rinsed clear of salt the fish were hung in the African sun to dry.

Treated this way they turn a beautiful ebony colour within a few weeks and are ready for eating as dried snoek or "biltong". My eyes mist over when I recall sitting down with a bunch of mates to swap lies and chew on strips of the dried flesh washed down with chilled Castle lager.

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So where’s the catch? Why don’t Kiwis touch barracouta or at best use them as craybait? Saffas relish them barbecued, smoked, dried or fried.

The problem is two-fold: The fish have lots of fine bones are not readily eliminated by filleting, and many are infected by nematode parasitic worms, especially when the fish are in poor condition.

The worms present as stringy white things in the flesh near the gut cavity. Truth is they do not affect the flavour or quality of the fish once cooked. Saffas turn a blind eye to them, and at any rate do not eat winter or spring ‘couta when the fish are lean and the parasites noticeable. A ‘couta in good condition has beautiful fat lining the gut cavity rendering the worms virtually invisible. Out of sight out of mind, you know...

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Quite another matter is "pap" (soft) snoek. This affects certain fish when invaded by a microscopic Protozoan parasite and makes the flesh mushy and unpalatable within a few hours of being caught. Such fish Saffas do not eat. As far as I know this particular condition is not encountered in NZ 'couta.

Curiously enough once or twice my catch of paddle-crab off the Hurunui coast has gone mushy unexpectedly. An online search confirmed sea crabs can go that way at certain times of the year. I wonder if a similar parasite is to blame?

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