The menu at Jorge Rausch's popular Criterion restaurant in Bogotá, Colombia, is full of familiar foodstuffs — foie gras, soft-shell crab, tuna tartare, asparagus with sauce hollandaise, wild mushroom risotto, langoustines in various preparations, filet mignon… But what Rausch — who, with his brother and co-chef Mark, also owns Marea in Cartagena and Rausch Panamá in Panama City — is most interested in serving you these days (and hopes other chefs will start serving you as well) is lionfish.
Lionfish are venomous, carnivorous creatures of the genus Pterois. They have long, fearsome spines and their sting — which releases a toxin that is rarely fatal but can cause serious problems in humans — is said to be 200 times more painful than that of a jellyfish. They are tropical fish, indigenous to the Indo-Pacific, but about 10 years ago, examples of two species (Pterois volitans and Pterolis miles), were accidentally released into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. (According to one story, these came from an aquarium in Florida.) Feeding on smaller fish and mollusks, they are a textbook example of an invasive species.
"If nothing is done about lionfish," Rausch told me when I sat down with him this week at Madrid Fusión, "in 20 years, it will be the only fish in these waters. It consumes four or five times its weight in seafood every day, and it is eating all the food of larger fish." It has few natural predators in the region; some large varieties of grouper will eat it, apparently without ill effect, but grouper itself is endangered.
Fortunately, Rausch continued, lionfish is very good to eat. "These fish eat a lot of shellfish, which gives them very good flavor. You can eat the flesh raw, and it's naturally very salty. It's a flat white-fleshed fish, really excellent and complex. Unfortunately, nobody knows much about this creature. Some fishermen won't eat it. They think that because the spines are poison, the meat is too."
Rausch had the idea of cooking lionfish for the first time when he was asked to cater a banquet for an environmental group in Cartagena. It occurred to him that it would be a good idea to serve something that not only wasn't protected but that should be wiped out. "The group applauded his efforts, and he realized that by encouraging other chefs to use the meat of this marine predator, he could help deplete their population. Whether the efforts of a small number of chefs in one country in South America will have any lasting effects on the lionfish problem isn't certain, but, says Rausch, "We should try."