Photo of Jose Andres.
Photo of Jose Andres.
The Plate

José Andrés: Man vs. Lionfish

Scuba diving has changed my life. There, I said it.

I always thought I was a man of the sea, having traveled the oceans with the Spanish Navy on the most beautiful tall ship in the world, the Juan Sebastián de Elcano.  But it wasn’t until I put on the mask, the tank, the flippers, and headed way down into the water, was I able to truly see a world I never knew existed.

I am a lucky boy because I was able to learn to scuba dive in the astonishing Cayman Islands. For years, I have been invited to the Cayman Cookout, hosted by the Ritz-Carlton, Food & Wine magazine and the Cayman Islands Tourism office. Here I cook alongside my good friends Eric Ripert and Tony Bourdain, just to name a few. In between my paella classes on the beach, talks and book signings, I am in the water.

It was at the Cookout one year that I learned yet another hard lesson on how fragile our food systems can be.  I had always been fascinated by the mysterious lionfish that I saw swimming around me with their long, fan-like fins. But then, the great chef Michael Schwartz opened my eyes to what was really happening in those quiet waters. He told me of how that single type of fish was destroying the rich life of the sea.

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Photograph by Nila Sivatheesan

This peculiar, spiny creature may be beautiful to look at, but the lionfish is doing ugly things to the Caribbean’s waters, swimming there uninvited and unwanted. Originally from the South Pacific waters, the lionfish arrived in the Atlantic Ocean and immediately began to outlive, out eat and outbreed all of the other species, hurting the health of our oceans and the health of the local economies. Lionfish can live up to 20 years old, and can grow up to 15 inches. Not only that, but their stomachs expand up to 30 times their normal size, allowing them to prey on fish in enormous proportions. They’re feasting on species that maintain the health of our ocean floor—the reefs and algae that supply a great amount of our world’s oxygen.

With no natural predator in the oceans to stop this invasion, the communities of the beautiful Caribbean are taking action and taking to the water to trap and remove these dangerous fish themselves. Chef Schwartz, and his team in the Cayman Islands led by Chef Thomas Tennant, told me it was time I went on a lionfish hunt. And these guys are serious. They are doing more than just trapping lionfish, they are turning them into lunch. A whole effort to “eat ‘em to beat ‘em” is being championed by many of the chefs of this region, and all the way up the East Coast of the U.S.  So I boarded a boat with my friends at Ambassador Divers and off I went to hunt the lionfish. Watch here!

At this year’s Cayman Cookout, local and visiting chefs took part in a special cooking demonstration that celebrated the successes of the many divers, fishermen, chefs and scientists who are working to eliminate the lionfish from their waters. Many groups are working together to solve this problem; from the World Lionfish Hunters Association to The Cayman Department of the Environment and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to name just a few of those working all over the Caribbean to spread the message about this fish, and to teach people how to hunt them and to protect the natural environment.

To honor those people so committed to protecting our seas, here is a simple ceviche you can make at home. This recipe is from my restaurant Mi Casa at the Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton resort and is the perfect ceviche for summer because it’s light and refreshing. We don’t actually make it with lionfish there (although maybe we should start!), and you don’t have to, either. But among a long list of issues our world’s oceans are facing – whether it’s the overfishing of certain populations, pollution or the demolition of the sea floor, removing lionfish from waters where they’re not wanted and making a delicious ceviche is just a small part that we can play. The oceans that so many of us enjoy will be a better place, and your taste buds are going to be happy about it.

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Photograph by Fabio Pistillo

‘Café Atlantico’ Coconut Lionfish Ceviche

Serves 4

1 pound lionfish or tilapia, or another flaky white fish, finely diced
Juice from 8 limes
½ cup quinoa, cooked
2 tablespoons coconut milk
2 tablespoons oil
½ medium jicama, peeled and diced
1 serrano pepper, seeded and diced
¼ cup roughly chopped cilantro
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Place the fish in a large bowl and add all of the lime juice but 2 tablespoons. Toss to ensure the fish is evenly coated in the lime juice. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator until the fish is white throughout, about 20 minutes.

Heat a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the cooked quinoa in one single layer and toast, shaking the pan to constantly to ensure even cooking, until lightly golden brown, about 1 minute.

In a small bowl, whisk together the coconut milk and 2 tablespoons of the lime juice. Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and then slowly whisk in the oil to make the dressing. Set aside.

To assemble the ceviche, combine the marinated fish with the coconut dressing in a large serving bowl. Mix in the jicama, serrano pepper and cilantro and garnish with the crispy quinoa before serving.

This story is part of National Geographic‘s special eight-month Future of Food series.