Canarian food is famous for its simple, tasty seafood like fried squid rings, delicious prawns and fish stew. However, delve a bit deeper into the local cuisine and some more exotic ocean ingredients and seafood dishes pop up.
Alex Says: 25 years ago I remember watching old women in Lanzarote, wearing huge hats and head scarves, munch their way through a whole bucket of live sea urchins or erizos de mar. The cracked each one open and sucked out the fresh roe, before baiting their fish traps with the shells. The fresh roe is soft and a bit slimy, but tastes fresh and slightly fishy. In Japan, it is highly prized for top quality sushi.
Live Sea Urchins
Sea urchins have become such a problem in parts of the Canaries that the government is trying to get Canarians to eat them more often. The roe, cooked down into a sauce, tastes intensely of the sea. Trouble is, you need to collect a lot of spiny urchins to make a plate of pasta! Each one gives you half a teaspoon of eggs.
Another local speciality is grilled limpets or lapas, served with green mojo sauce (made from garlic, fresh coriander, chilli, vinegar and oil). Limpets are hard to collect because they live on rocks in rough areas and clamp down if you try and dislodge them. The best way to get them is to sneak up and side swipe them with a rock or an iron bar. Cooking limpets is easy as they come in their own little pot: Just add a dash of lemon juice and a teaspoon of green mojo to each upturned limpet, and put them under the grill until the meat comes away from the shells. Limpets are tasty but a little bit chewy, especially if overdone.
Harvesting mussels and limpets is currently restricted in the Canaries, and especially on Fuerteventura, as over-collection was damaging the ecosystem. The limpets you find in small local bars are almost all imported. They still taste the same, and the freezing even makes them slightly tenderer!
Fried Moray Eel
Moray eels are fatty and full of bones, with hardly any meat at all. That doesn't stop Canarians from chopping them up and deep frying the bits until they go crispy. Then they chew up the crisped eel (morena frita) and spit out the bones. Moray eel is very satisfying because it is greasy and tasty, but most people are put off by the bones. Personally, I prefer my moray eels live and wriggling about! They get up to six feet long and make the islands a more attractive Scuba destination.
Octopus Old Clothes
Octopus old clothes (ropa vieja de pulpo) is a stew made from chickpeas, onions, tomatoes and octopus. It is called old clothes stew or "ropa vieja" because legend states that it was first made by a man so poor that he boiled his own clothes. When he took the top of his pot, he found this delicious dish inside instead. When you sit down to a dish of octopus ropa vieja, try not to picture the naked man who first ate it!
Poached parrotfish (vieja jareada) is an iconic Canarian dish that never gets onto tourist menus because the Canarians keep all the parrotfish to themselves. They are beautiful, multi-coloured animals, with big beaky teeth, that live in shoals and eat crabs and urchins. Their meat is soft and flaky and falls apart unless cooked with care. Viejas are poached whole with onion, peppers and laurel leaves and served with the skin unbroken.
Viejas are traditionally caught from small boats using a glass-bottomed box or "mirafondos", and a cane rod tipped with a dried stingray tail for sensitivity. The fisherman, in a small rowing boat, moves over the rocks until he spots a shoal of viejas through his mirafondos. Then he drops his line, tipped with a long iron hook baited with a small crab amongst the fish. The big hook is essential as viejas can bite through nylon and small hooks with their strong teeth. Once a vieja bites, the fisherman whips it up away from the school quickly so as not to spook the others.
Viejas became very rare because of overfishing but are now staging a big comeback thanks to marine reserves and fishing limits.
Cuttlefish are related to squid but have slightly sweeter meat. In the Canaries, they are stewed until very tender in white wine along with bay leaves and garlic. The dish is called chocos en salsa: It's rich and exceptionally tasty!
Come across any other weird seafood in the Canary Island? Let me know and we'll add it to the list.