Steamed, with salt and a dash of lime

by Rucha Karkarey


Classifying parrotfish can be a nightmare for taxonomists


“Today’s special is parrotfish. How would you like your fish cooked, Madam?” the waiter at a seafood restaurant in Kochi asked as he presented to me the most beautiful specimen of a Bullethead parrotfish (Chlorurus sordidus ). I marvelled at the fish’s garish blue, green and purple hues and was reminded of why this was my favourite coral reef fish. I was transported back to an evening in Lakshadweep, when Rauf, a keen young boy, pulled out a parrotfish from his father’s fishing net, looking positively delighted. I asked Rauf why he thought the fish was so special. He sat down cross-legged and said, “where do I begin”.

“The meat is delicate and sweet, and needs no added flavours because they eat so much sweet seagrass”. Parrotfish are called so because of their unique teeth, which are fused together into one or two plates that protrude out from their jaws to form a parrot-like beak. Like Rauf said, parrotfish are herbivores and feed voraciously on algae and seagrasses that grow on coral reefs and in lagoons. They are very important residents of coral reefs and because they feed all the time, they keep the coral reefs relatively free from algae, thus keeping them healthy.

Have you ever wondered where the pearly white sand on beaches comes from? Rauf snickered, and told me it perhaps came from parrotfish poop. “When you see them in the water, you only see them pooping sand!” These fish sometimes bite off pieces of corals, when they feed on algae. The ingested coral gets pulverized in their throats into fine sand and is excreted by these fish in the water, landing up eventually on a beach near the reef.

“They change colours throughout their lives” Rauf had exclaimed. “Whenever we catch one, we never know if it is the same species or a different one”. Not only do most parrotfish change colours and patterns as they grow, but they also change gender. This is called ‘hermaphroditism‘. Some species of parrotfish can change their gender repeatedly throughout their lives according to the ratio of male and female fish in the social group they live in. As you can imagine, classifying parrotfish is a nightmare not only for Rauf and his people but even for the best fish taxonomists in the world.

Rauf told me that these parrotfish were rare delicacies because they were difficult to catch. “They live near the floor of the reef and were not usually caught in nets.” To catch this parrotfish you’d need to go out at night with a torch. Every night, some species of parrotfish wedge themselves inside crevices or caves and envelope themselves inside a cocoon made of mucous which they secrete from a gland in their heads. This cocoon is foul to smell and taste and keeps nocturnal predators away. “Every reef fish tastes so different, perhaps because of how they live,” Rauf told me. “My mother knows best to cook thispacha pheesam.”

“Would you like it in a spicy curry?” the waiter impatiently interrupted my reverie. Having just relived my evening conversation with Rauf from which I had learnt the crucial link between a fish’s life history habits and its unique flavour, I said “steamed with salt and a dash of lime” mouthing Rauf’s enlightening recipe.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 30 October 2013.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons