07/23/2024

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

The Portuguese island is known for its variety of marine delicacies like lapas (limpets with only one shell) and octopus, but ugly scabbard fish stand out in fishermen’s markets like a sore thumb — or rather long and Black thumbs, serrated teeth, eel-like eyes and shiny appearance, looking straight from the oil slick.

I’m not saying my animals have to be cute before I eat them: choosing beef, pork or lamb for dinner based on its cuteness is actually pretty morbid. But one look at the black scabbard makes you think twice. In fact, you can even convince yourself that it will eat you first.

Sea monster?
Of course, such nightmares are impossible. With the black scabbard lurking at depths of 1,700 meters, the pressure of the water actually kills them when they surface. The humaneness of this practice is yet to be determined, but the black scabbard certainly won’t survive until dawn.

Still, the locals go to great lengths to preserve the tradition of this famous ingredient. Sílvio de Freitas, owner and executive chef of Peixaria no Mercado, says the scaleless bandfish is actually vital to Madeira’s fisheries, accounting for nearly 50 percent of its ocean exports. Needless to say, Ursula wasn’t too happy: she might consider them her friends, or her “poor piss”, if you will.

big fish to fry
No one ever turned down an opportunity to immerse themselves in the food of another culture, and I overcame my initial reluctance to try the black scabbard and went all out.

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

“Its origins date back to the 80s, when it was necessary to combine the abundance of fish in the waters of Madeira with the abundance of exotic fruits,” explains de Freitas. “The fillets themselves are seasoned with salt, garlic and lemon juice. They are 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 passion jam, which is gaining popularity in Funchal (the island’s bustling capital), especially among tourists.

tasty
This is exactly the preparation that calls my name because I am passionate about passion fruit. After tasting this dish many times, I can indeed confirm that the island’s most iconic dish is delicious. It’s most similar in texture and taste to haddock: lean white flesh with little oil, but a subtle sweetness, and absolutely no fishy aftertaste. I also appreciate how the simple flavor of filet chips allows local produce, like the aforementioned passion fruit, to really shine.

While the black sheath fish is largely nonexistent in the United States, its shinier sister, the silver sheath fish, is sometimes present and can be found at specialty seafood stores. (Or just use haddock.) That said, you can pay homage to this famous dish 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 a book isn’t judged by its cover, it’s the black scabbard. Just make sure to add parsley…and avoid any internet searches until you’re done.

Black Sheath Fish with Fried Bananas


raw material:
4 black sheath fillets

1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed

salt and pepper

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 cup flour

1 egg, beaten

3 tablespoons olive oil (or more if needed)

2 Madeira bananas (or plantains)

2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

instruct:
Season the 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 flour. In another container or bowl, place the beaten eggs.
Heat oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.
Drain the fillets from the marinade, then dredge in the flour, then in the beaten eggs. Put them in a frying pan and fry them in hot oil until golden brown. Drain fillets on absorbent paper.
Peel the bananas and cut in half lengthwise. Thread them through a flour and egg bowl, then quickly fry them in oil until golden brown. Let them also blot dry with absorbent paper.
Place the fillets on a plate or plate. Place a banana on each fillet. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with boiled potatoes. You can also drizzle your own passion jam on top.

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