Not long ago, deep in the Amazon Basin, lurking in the waters of a small tributary, there swam a piranha. As piranhas go, he was nothing extraordinary, but you have to remember that piranhas rule the waters, so even a lesser piranha is imposing.
Piranhas are the Spartans of the fish world; every little piranha is brought up by mommy and daddy to be a ruthless carnivore, dominant in its murky universe. As members of a powerful group, a piranha and her pals can reduce a mature steer to a heap of scrap in a matter of minutes. Our piranha was understandably haughty.
One day, the piranha was swimming with a school of buddies, on the prowl for flesh, when he was scooped up and plopped in a bucket of water. That was OK: the piranha was now the overlord of the bucket; he was important, and being important matters a lot to a piranha. The bucket was smaller than the river, and the piranha quickly adapted. Ego fills the space made available to it.
In no time at all, the piranha was plopped in another container of water. That container was put on a plane, and sent north. Soon, our piranha was deposited in a large tank. The tank was full of smaller fish. It was a perfect situation. For the piranha.
The piranha looked around and, as was his nature, he reconnoitered the area in terms of available protein, then set about establishing that he was ruler of the domain. He flexed his muscles, took a few nips out of those fish that dared get in his way, staked out his turf – which was anywhere he happened to be at the time – took control of the situation, and made plans to rule his empire.
His strength was such that he could do anything he wanted. If he decided to set up shop in the corner of the tank, it was his; any opposition risked his wrath, and disaster. The other fish learned to steer clear of the piranha, going near the surface of the water if he chose to move to the bottom of the tank. When he swam to the surface, the fish went in the other direction. The piranha was ruler of all he surveyed; what he desired became custom. He rearranged his bailiwick inside the tank as he pleased. Piranhas are pretty darned impressive fish. Just ask one.
One day, a beautiful and exotic fish swam past the piranha. You have to understand, a piranha frequently does something just because he can. He might give the other fish the impression he cares about them, and protects them (so long as enough food falls in the tank), but he knows he is the strongest son of a bitch in the joint, and he can force his will on any other resident. That comes with being top fish in the tank. If the top fish has a whim, the whim is the order of the day.
So, the piranha swims over to a beautiful, exotic fish, and takes a large chunk out of its back. The piranha is oblivious to the pain he causes; after all, he’s powerful. He has only to pretend to comprehend the plight of a victim. Mostly, he ignores the woes of others, and keeps on chewing. For the piranha, all is right because he is right. The other fish best know this, or else.
A few days later, another brightly colored creature wanders too close to the piranha and, just because he can (he’s not hungry, after all), the piranha takes a big chunk out of it. Could things be any better? If you’re the piranha? Nope. But, remember: nothing lasts.
One night a strange object appears in the tank: a wad of stinky flesh, stuck on the end of a sharp, barbed piece of metal. The piranha is wary. The blob of gunk jigs up and down in front of him, and something tells him this piece of meat should be avoided. He swims to a far corner of the tank. The few small fish left in the tank hurry to the opposite end. With their departure, their acquiescence obvious, the piranha is lulled back to a sense of stability, security, absolute control.
So, who knows what goes through the creature’s mind (such as it is) when a net dips into the water, closes around him, and he is swept up and out of a seemingly perfect, enduring existence?
Think of it: In one instant, from emperor and masterful consumer to … food.
Let’s cut to the chase, ditch the parable, and cease this pitiful quest for meaning that relates but poorly to today’s American economic and political systems: I cooked the damned piranha.
The fish belonged to a friend of mine, and she was tired of the beast’s terroristic ways. The piranha had to go, much like Tsar Nicholas and his crew had to go, much like a lot of Wall Street Bankers should go, or a certain president and his administration. Since it would not be a welcome house pet anywhere else, the piranha had to die. We all have to – it was the piranha’s turn.
When I heard about the impending end of the brutal little rascal, I offered to take the fish straight to the kitchen, and to a hot pan. The symbolism was too much for me to resist.
But, what to do? How often have you thought about cooking a piranha? I had never thought about it, so I did what any inquisitive cook would do: I Googled piranha recipes.
Believe it or not, there aren’t many piranha recipes on the Internet. If you want, you’ll get hundreds of recipes for offal — sheep’s testicles, glands from a giraffe, and the like. There’s no way you can read all the recipes using sea urchin roe. Piranha? Slim pickings.
What I got were a few recollections by intrepid travelers to South American backwaters, where many types of piranha lurk – tales of dinners with natives that included piranha. But no recipes beyond chunk it up, roll it in cornmeal, fry it in oil.
I figured the backwoods approach was too mundane for a fish that, moments before, dominated everything in its universe. You chunk up catfish, roll it in something, and fry it. The catfish is a homely bottom dweller, it deserves this dismal fate. Not so a piranha.
I decided to give the fish a simple, classical treatment. I figured I’d cook piranha meuniere: a dish melding the solid and staid with the utterly bizarre – a Baudelarian juxtaposition, a dish worthy of Salvador Dali.
So, I’m there when the piranha is removed from its cozy confines, jerked out of an environment saturated with its utter lack of empathy, incredible arrogance, and aggression. True to form, the beast does not die easily. If we compare fish to machines, the piranha is an aquatic Abrams battle tank. The fish is built to be in combat, to deliver and survive massive blows.
First, there’s the teeth, lots of them. Next, the skin: thick, tough as leather. Then, there’s the bones. If you or I had a rib proportionately as large as a piranha’s, it would be as thick as the barrel of a Louisville slugger.
Last, there’s the instinct. This guy did not go gentle into that good night. He definitely raged against the dying of the light.
I won’t go into the details of what it took to finish off the piranha, other than to say that a hammer was involved; it’s enough to note that after the head is separated from a piranha’s body, the teeth still snap on the blade of a knife held to the fish’s mouth. For quite some time after the decapitation. This was not a stocker trout coaxed out of a municipal pond by an awkwardly tied fly; it was no meek tilapia, raised on a fish farm, cultivated for its role in a muddy-tasting fish taco. It was a persistent, super-aggressive little asshole. Ours was a pound of pure fight.
And about a tenth of a pound of food.
To say the piranha is bony is to sell the species short. Where some fish – most typical food fish – are flesh supported by bone, (many resembling underwater cows), the piranha is bones with a teensy bit of flesh jammed between them.
I originally intended to fillet the piranha, then proceed with my simple stovetop treatment.
After my host produced the carcass, I halved the fish with considerable effort, cleaned the blood tracks (where the strongest taste lurks) and kept the skin on. Each half of the fish was now the size of a pack of cards. Two packs of very bony cards.
I heated butter in a heavy pan, seasoned the pieces of piranha with salt and pepper, and popped them skin side down in the hot butter. The smell was agreeable. The product was fresh; the teeth were still clicking on the knife blade.
I cooked the skin side a couple minutes, salting and peppering the flesh, then turned the pieces. After a minute or so, I turned off the heat, tossed in more butter, and squeezed in the juice of two lemons. I added salt and pepper as the sauce emulsified, took the fish from the pan to a heated plate, adjusted the seasonings in the sauce (alas, there was no parsley at hand), and poured the sauce on the pieces of fish.
How does piranha taste? Surprisingly sweet, and nearly tasteless, contrary to what one might imagine, given the fierce character of the fish. It tastes like most mild, firm white fish – i.e. a lot like the sauce that accompanies it.
That is, when you finally wedge a nibble of the flesh from it’s prison of massive bones.
Thank goodness I grilled some elk burgers. A member of the state’s legislature was at the table — a large guy, flush with the good cheer a politician must imitate. He and I drank bourbon from water glasses. Everything seemed fine.
This was a Voltaire moment: “Once a philosopher, twice a fool.” Should another friend inform me their piranha has to die, then extend an invitation to cook the fish, I’ll decline. Piranhas are too much of a tussle for such a meager return.
If I’m in the mood for fish, I’ll steer clear of the aquarium, and buy my product at the market here in Siberia With a View. If there’s sole available, and it’s not brownish gray in color, I’ll prepare sole meuniere as a memorial to the sole’s befanged berserker relative. If there’s halibut available, I’ll use it. It’ll be delicious.
There’ll be plenty of fish.
And it won’t bite.