Is the "world's ugliest fish" really good? Here's how to cook the black sheath.

Seafood is polarizing enough when it comes to the taste preferences of most Americans, but even the most ardent fish lover might overlook the atrocity of Madeira's black scabbardfish.

The Portuguese island is known for its various marine delicacies, such as lapas (cap shells with only one shell) and octopus, but the ugly scabbardfish stands out in fishermen's markets like sore thumbs - or rather long, black thumbs with jagged teeth and eels - like eyes and shiny looks straight out of an oil slick .

I'm not saying my animals have to be cute before I consume them: choosing beef, pork or lamb for dinner based on its cuteness is actually rather morbid. But one look at a black knife sheath and you'll think twice about it. In fact, you might even convince yourself it will eat you first.

Sea monsters?
Of course, such a nightmare is impossible. Since black sheaths lurk at a depth of 1,700 meters, the pressure of the water will actually kill them when they come to the surface. Whether this is humane is yet to be determined, but it is true that the black sheaths will not survive until dawn.

Nonetheless, locals have gone to great lengths to preserve the tradition of this famous ingredient, and Sílvio de Freitas, owner and executive chef of Peixaria no Mercado, says the scaleless striped bass is actually vital to Madeira's fishing industry, accounting for nearly 50 percent of its sea exports. Needless to say, Ursula wasn't too happy: she probably thought they were her friends, or her "poor little poo," if you will.

Big fish to fry
No one ever turns down the opportunity to immerse themselves in the food of another culture, and I overcame my initial reluctance to try the black knife sheath and went all out.

Traditionally fried with local bananas, this fish is one of Madeira's most popular dishes.

"Its origins date back to the 1980s, when there was a need to combine the rich fish of Madeira's waters with the abundance of exotic fruits," de Freitas explains. "The fillets themselves are seasoned with salt, garlic and lemon juice. It is then rubbed with beaten eggs and flour and fried in olive oil until golden brown."

Locals have also come up with creative iterations, such as adding a passion fruit sauce that is becoming increasingly popular in Funchal, the island's bustling capital, especially among tourists.

Yum.
This is exactly the kind of preparation that calls my name, as I am passionate about passion fruit. After tasting this dish many times, I can indeed confirm that the island's most iconic dish is very tasty. It had the texture and flavor most similar to haddock: lean white meat with little oil, but with a subtle sweetness and absolutely zero fishy flavor. I also appreciated how the simple flavors of the fillet allowed local produce, like the aforementioned passion fruit, to really shine.

While haddock is largely non-existent in the U.S., its shiny sister, silver sheefish, sometimes makes an appearance and can be found at seafood specialty stores. (Or just use haddock.) That said, you can pay homage to this famous meal by using Madeira-inspired ingredients to capture the flavor profile. de Freitas even offers his own recipe below.

If there's one example of why you can't judge a book by its cover, it's the black knife sheath. Just be sure to add parsley …… and avoid any internet searches until you're done eating.

Black sheath fish with fried banana

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 black sheath fish fillets
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil (or more, if desired)
  • 2 Madeira bananas (or plantains)
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped

Instructions:
Season the fish fillets with lemon juice, salt, pepper and minced garlic. Let them rest in the refrigerator for a few hours.
In a container or bowl, place the flour. In a separate container or bowl, place the beaten eggs.
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
Drain the fillets from the marinade and fish them out in the flour, then in the beaten eggs. Add them to the skillet and fry in the hot oil until golden brown. Drain the fillets on absorbent paper.
Peel the bananas and cut them in half lengthwise. Pass them through the bowl of flour and eggs and fry them quickly in the oil until golden brown. Let them drain on absorbent paper as well.
Place the fillets on a plate or platter. Place a piece of banana on each fillet. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with boiled potatoes. You can also make your own passion fruit sauce to drizzle over the top.

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