New England monkfish–it’s an export market. A small amount does stay domestic, you’d think it’d be more, monkfish are delicious: broiled, baked, or grilled. But the American palate for seafood is hard to describe. I call it safe, predictable, boneless, filleted. Your average American would have no idea what to do with a whole monk.
But the Koreans love them.
A monkfish is all head and mouth, a massive structure, unmistakable, where the head’s a maze of bones so intricate it makes no sense to anyone but an expert. Their jaw bones have hundreds of connection and extention bones–these are what make it possible for a large monkfish to be able to swallow a goose. Hence their other name: goosefish.
This photo shows a large monkfish we caught last spring on the southside of Block Island.
The Koreans buy their monkfish frozen and whole. Then they cut the fish–head to tail–into chunks, and cook with them. They want large fish, fish over 7 pounds, and they want East Coast gillnet caught fish, and are willing to pay a high price to get them.
The highest quality gillnet fish comes off boats that tend their nets every 24 hours, give or take. And so in the spring and summer–on the boat I work on– we target monkfish for the Korean marketplace. Last year we did very well: a high price with steady landings. We’re hoping this year for a repeat.
Americans mostly eat fish for the grill–salmon and tuna, then some more salmon. We also eat fillets, boneless cod, flounder, tilapia. In the United States one bone is a bone too many. The rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. The Koreans eat their monk with bean sprouts and spice. A famous Korean dish is Agu Jjim which, from what I can gather, can be a soup, a stew, a noodle.
In the photo below notice the monkfish chunk near the octupus tentacle. The amount of bone in that chunk would scare most Americans to death. It’s the opposite of a Filet-O-Fish Sandwich.
If you ever find yourself working as a deckhand on a gillnetter between the Carolinas and Maine, here are some instructions we got from Seoul on how to handle a monkfish at sea. On the Tiger Jo, we heed this advice.
1. Handle the fish with care and respect–meaning don’t hold the fish in the eyes when you move them from the net to the tote. I’m guessing the Korean buyer, if he sees busted eyes assumes mishandling. Monkfish are hard to carry and hard to pull from the net–the eye grab is tempting. Don’t do it.
2.Remove the guts completely–but, and this is hugely important, leave the stomach intact and attached to the esaphugaus. Then cut the tip of the stomach so that a chef can stuff the stomach for dinnertime. Also save the liver. I’m pretty sure–in the winter–most of the livers go to Japan. The Japanese steam them with scallions, a delicacy.
3. Very quickly wash the fish–but don’t go crazy washing the fish. The Koreans don’t want the mucus to be washed off. I don’t know why this is. Monkfish are very slippery, both their skin and bellies, so it’s very tempting to put the fish into a basket, give them a complete washing. Resist this.
4.Put the fish in the tote belly side up, brown side down. And ice them.
I find these export markets very interesting; that many US fishermen make a good shot of their yearly incomes sending fish to Asia and Europe. It’s all high quality product. And the exports give the boat a dock-side price that the boat would never see if the fish stayed domestic. Think of bluefin tuna, monkfish, skate. I’ll write more about this because some of it doesn’t make sense–why do we import 85 percent of our seafood but export some of our best?