Allen Susser Wants You to Eat More Lionfish

Crisp whole lionfish
Crisp whole lionfish Photo by
Chef Allen Susser has a murderous intention.

The venerable chef wants to put an end to lionfish, the invasive species that has been taking over reefs in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean. "They're currently desecrating our reefs, and we need to rid ourselves of these lionfish."

According to Susser, there's an easy solution to the problem: Eat them. "Thankfully, they're delicious. They have a white flesh with a nice, briny flavor."

Susser's new book, Green Fig and Lionfish: Sustainable Caribbean Cooking ($33 on Amazon, $10.99 for Kindle download), lists several recipes that call for lionfish. There's lionfish ceviche, lionfish stew, lionfish tacos, banana leaf-wrapped lionfish, and more. The recipes, Susser says, work for any white-fleshed fish, but he encourages home chefs to try lionfish, which gets its name from the pectoral fins and spiky fin rays that frame the fish like a lion's mane.

The fish's beauty is the reason the Indian Ocean native is taking over and destroying the local reef systems. According to Susser, in the 1980s, pet owners kept these beautiful and rare creatures in home aquariums but soon found their lionfish ate all the other creatures in their tanks. Frustrated, some people released the fish into the Atlantic Ocean, unwittingly setting loose a predator that has no natural enemies in local waters.

"The first time a lionfish was found in the Atlantic was in 1980," Susser says. "Forty years later, the fish has traveled to the Bahamas, the Caribbean, up the Gulf of Mexico, and up the East Coast to the Carolinas. I just read an article that they were found in the Mediterranean." 

A prolific breeder and eater, the lionfish consumes seven times its weight and matures within a year. A female can lay two million eggs a year. "They'll eat anything, and they have no known predators locally. All their known predators are in the Indian Ocean," Susser says. "They're living the high life here."

Though there are no restrictions on harvesting lionfish, the best way to catch them is through spearfishing. Susser hopes they'll become so popular on plates that fishermen will begin setting traps for them.

Right now, though, the fish are available at Whole Foods Market and local fish purveyors. An adult lionfish weighs one to two pounds and yields two substantial fillets. Though lionfish are venomous, the toxins do not travel from the fins, which are usually snipped off when the fish is caught.

Whether or not you seek lionfish, Susser stresses buying seafood that's sustainable. "I focus on being a good fish buyer so our grandkids have fresh fish from the sea to eat." The chef says the best way to buy and eat sustainably is by looking at the labels and asking questions. "'Sustainable' doesn't mean only local or fresh. You can buy frozen sustainable seafood and there's nothing wrong with that."

The chef also recommends asking where the fish came from before ordering it at your favorite restaurant. "Ask the server what fish might be sustainable. If we make this conversation louder, more chefs will buy sustainable seafood."

And once you've purchased your sustainable fish, Susser's new book will help you prepare a colorful and delicious dish steeped in flavors of the Caribbean. The chef's recipes were inspired by his time in St. Lucia, where he's a chef consultant at the resorts Jade Mountain and Anse Chastanet. "I think Caribbean cooking is honest, hearty, and well flavored."

Here's a recipe from Susser's new book:

West Indian Coconut Spiced Lionfish
  • 2 Tablespoons unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 Tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 large lionfish fillets
  • 4 Tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 Tablespoons minced green onions
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
  • 1 cup freshly made organic carrot juice
  • 1/2 cup freshly squeezed local orange juice
  • 2 Tablespoons cold sweet butter
To prepare the spices: In a small bowl, combine the coconut, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

To prepare the lionfish: Sprinkle the lionfish liberally with the coconut spice and drizzle with 2 Tablespoons warmed coconut oil. Cover and refrigerate for four hours.

To prepare the carrot-ginger sauce: In a medium saucepan over moderate heat, warm the remaining oil and add the onion and ginger. Cook for three to four minutes until softened. Mix in the carrot and orange juices and bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce the liquid to half the volume and season with salt and pepper. Cut the cold butter into three pieces and whisk into the sauce.

To pan grill the lionfish: Preheat a large seasoned grill pan over high heat. Sear the fish for about two to three minutes on each side until just cooked through. Place the cooked lionfish on a platter and serve with the sauce on the side.
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Laine Doss is the food and spirits editor for Miami New Times. She has been featured on Cooking Channel's Eat Street and Food Network's Great Food Truck Race. She won an Alternative Weekly award for her feature about what it's like to wait tables.
Contact: Laine Doss