Food

9 Delicious Invasive Species You Should Be Eating

by Jean Trinh

November 1, 2016

As buzzwords like sustainability and hyperlocal are getting much more traction lately, so is the idea of invasivorism.

Invasivorism is the practice of eating invasive species as a means to help lower the numbers of these multiplying creatures and plants that are overcrowding habitats and altering delicate ecosystems. The idea has grown in popularity over the years, spawning pro-invasivorism websites like EattheInvaders.org and even inspiring pop-up dinners that feature menus based on these delectable interlopers.

Joe Roman, the biologist behind EattheInvaders.org, believes that noshing on invasive species isn’t the be-all and end-all remedy for these ecological nightmares and that other eradication programs and legislation should come first. “It should be clear that this is not going to solve the problem, but it might help mitigate it and reduce it in some ways, while also providing a good meal,” he told CBC News.

It’s not easy to get wholesalers on board to sell invasive species. They can’t sell the products on a large scale because invasivorism is a local practice. “What’s invasive in one part of the country may not be available in others—it may even be native,” Matthew Barnes, an assistant professor at Texas Tech University and the founder of another pro-invasivorism website Invasivore.org, told Quartz.

There are other issues, too. Barnes says, “Increased consumer demand for invasive species, combined with the reluctance of wholesalers to enter a market with the purpose of putting themselves out of business as previously mentioned, could backfire and promote cultivation or intentional spread of invasive species motivated by profit.”

Still, chefs and home cooks around the country are whipping up gourmet dishes with invasive species in mind. After all, like the folks at an annual invasive species cook-off in Oregon say, "If you can't beat ’em, eat ’em.” Here are some of the most delicious invasive species around the nation, from lionfish to Chesapeake blue catfish.

Lionfish

The venomous lionfish, a striped and spiny-finned sea creature native to the Indo-Pacific, has reared its ugly head where it doesn’t belong—along the southeast coast of the United States, throughout the Caribbean, and in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. While it’s not exactly clear how this invasion came about, experts believe it’s as a result of home aquarium owners releasing their lionfish pets into the ocean, according to the National Ocean Service.

This invasive species is an intense one. Not only can the fish’s prickly spine release a toxin that can inflict some serious pain, it also spawns all year long and has a voracious appetite. “They can eat 90 percent of their body weight, everyday, in fish,” Eric Nelson, a diver who hunts lionfish in the Atlantic, told PBS Newshour. “In fact, we have pictures of lionfish that have been gutted, and they have 50 small fish inside of them.”

Despite the lionfish’s aggressive nature and appearance, its flesh is white and translucent and has a mild taste. Stephen Gyland, who owns Cods & Capers Seafood in North Palm Beach, Florida, told me in a phone interview that guests will pick out lionfish from his market and request for it to be prepared in myriad ways at his cafe: deep-fried whole, grilled, sautéed, and even made into a delectable ceviche.

And don’t worry about the lionfish's meat being poisonous. Gyland says, “There’s a little misunderstanding. It’s widely noted that the fin itself is poisonous, but it’s just (venomous) if the fin sticks you while the fish is alive … The meat’s never poisonous. And once the fish has been dead for an hour, the fins on it—they’re no longer (venomous), no longer active.”

Gyland thinks that it’s an “exercise in futility” to try to control the lionfish population in the Atlantic just because there’s no way divers would be able to eradicate all of them. There are just too many of them. Instead he sees lionfish as a resource from the ocean, just like any of the other fish out there.

Wild Boar

Wild boars (aka feral pigs and wild hogs) aren’t an easy invasive species to control. Spanish explorers brought the pigs to North America in the 1500s, but the livestock eventually escaped from their enclosures and became feral. The same thing happened again in the late 1890s when the European hogs were brought here for hunting. The swine just kept multiplying in the wild. Nationwide, there are about five billion feral pigs running around, and they have been causing an estimated $1.5 billion in damages and control costs annually, according to a 2007 study.

These ferocious porkers are smart and resilient, and they can evict native wildlife and wreak havoc on farms by tearing up land and devouring crops. Besides their ravenous appetite, they’re also scary to humans.

“They’re mean. They’re aggressive. They’ll charge you,” Deedy Loftus, a hunting guide in Northern California told The Washington Post. “They’ll cut you or stab you with their teeth. They have big tusks, or cutters, as we call them.”

Jack Mayer, a feral pig expert and scientist at Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina, presented his research on wild boar attacks at a Wildlife Damage Management Conference in 2014, saying that over a 15-year period, four attacks in the United States were fatal. “The bottom line is, wild pig attacks on humans do occur, although these incidents are rare,” Mayer told The Augusta Chronicle. “However, the consequences can be serious.”

Most game, like wild boar and elk, that you will find in restaurants is field-harvested or farm raised and is inspected and slaughtered at a USDA-certified facility. Hank Shaw, James Beard Award-winning author of the blog Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, told Monterey County Weekly that while the game served at restaurants are never truly wild, some ranchers like those at Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas come close to the practice, by keeping their animals in near-wilderness conditions, roaming on over 800,000 acres of land. When harvesting season comes, ranchers will “hunt” specific animals and butcher them on their ranch at a processing site.

Chef Brandon Kida of Hinoki & The Bird in Los Angeles, has taken advantage of implementing delicious wild boar—which tastes like gamier and leaner pork—into his dishes. He sources his feral pigs from game hunters who hunt in the eastern pine forests of Texas. On Kida’s menu are succulent wild boar ribs, which are served fried and punched-up with Szechuan peppercorns and kaffir lime.

"My team and I are always searching for new and sustainable alternatives,” Kida told GOOD. “Wild boar has a unique flavor profile that we intensify with Szechuan peppercorn and fish sauce.”

Purslane and Nettles

Purslane is an old-school invasive species: a tough succulent that’s been in North America for centuries and is viewed as a pesky weed that pops out of sidewalk cracks and walkways.

Its origins are disputed. Many believe it was brought from the Old World to North America, while other historical references have noted that it was spotted in pre-Columbian times in states like Missouri and Colorado. Others believe the species spread throughout North America by way of the Native Americans.

As annoying as it may be to gardeners, the purslane—a round leafed herb—makes for a tangy and peppery plant that can be added to dishes like salads. It’s also a healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids. "We have all this sitting in our front yard, and we can eat it, and it's cheaper than salmon," Joan Norman, owner of One Straw Farm in White Hall, Maryland, told the Chicago Tribune.

Kevin Meehan, chef and co-owner of Los Angeles fine dining restaurant Kali, sautés purslane in olive oil to accompany his bass fish-and-tomatoes plate that he serves to guests. He also adds nettles, another invasive weedy plant, to his soups. Nettles, which colonists originally brought from Europe to New England, were just like purslane—difficult to eradicate, but very tasty.

“The nettles have a mineral flavor and amazing flavor, similar to spinach,” Meehan told GOOD. “The purslane tastes like crispy cucumber.”

As to why Meehan’s been adding these invasive plants to his dishes? It’s for variety. “They are unique and offer guests something special they generally they do not eat on a regular basis,” he says.

Asian Carp

Asian carp are major invaders that were originally brought in from Southeast Asia to the United States in the 1970s as a means to filter aquaculture and sewer treatment ponds. The trouble started when floods pushed the fish out into the Mississippi River. Since then, they’ve been quickly moving up the river and its tributaries, reigning over the streams and pushing out native species. These massive sea creatures, which are known to surprise boaters by leaping out of waters, can grow up to 100 pounds. They can also devour 40 percent of its body weight in plankton.

On the other end of the food chain, these guys also make for some tasty mild, white fish. James Beard Award-nominated chef Bun Lai, who’s a huge proponent of sustainable and hyperlocal food, has an entire section of the menu at his Miya’s Sushi restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut, dedicated to invaders. Here you’ll find his nine-spice Asian carp sashimi, delicately sliced and paired with a spicy citrus tamari sauce. If guests feel like upping the ante some more, Miya’s Sushi offers the option of topping that with roasted black soldier fly larvae.

At Prey, Lai’s pop-up at South Beach’s 1 Hotel, he gave Asian carp another unique treatment. He served its ribs barbecue style, lacquered in a ginger-guava sauce.

At Miya’s Sushi, you’ll find other invasive species like lionfish, blue catfish, and Asian shore crabs on the menu. “I became aware of invasive species when I was hanging out with my friend Yancy, who’s now a professor in anthropology in Australia,” Lai told The Scuttlefish. “We’d go out and throw rocks into the ocean, and noticed that there were these crabs that we hadn’t seen before. We looked them up and they were the invasive Asian shore crab. During that period I was already interested in species of seafood that were abundant, but underutilized, because I was starting to become aware of the fact that many of the species that we were eating were also having the most negative impact on the environment. So, Yancy and I discussed the possibility of going after invasive species as a supply chain for food, and it kind of made sense for the cuisine of sushi.”

Blue Catfish

Like the Asian carp, the blue catfish population is growing at an extreme rate. These big guys can weigh more than 100 pounds. They were first introduced in the 1970s to the James and Rappahannock Rivers in Virginia so that fishermen could access a new type of species for game fishing, but now they’ve spread throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

They’re known to have a varied diet, eating everything from other fish to blue crabs. Their ravenous hunger also makes them so delicious to eat.

Celebrity TV chef David Guas, who hails from New Orleans, serves blue catfish at Bayou Bakery in the Washington, D.C., area. In a phone interview, he told me that, because these creatures in the Chesapeake Bay are munching on rockfish and blue crab, “they have a wonderful kind of rich, crabby kind of flavor to them. They’re not your typical kind of murky, muddy pond catfish.”

In Southern cooking, non-invasive catfish is breaded in corn flour and deep-fried, but Guas prepares blue catfish in a much simpler way because of its unique flavors. “Literally salt and pepper and pan seared is how we were preparing them in the evening for our dinner menu,” he says. The seared blue catfish is served alongside pan-fried Yukon potatoes, wilted spinach, and a pecan meunière.

“And then in the daytime, we’ll dredge it in some creole seasoning and we’ll blacken them in a cast iron or on the flat top and put that in a po’boy,” Guas says. “It’s like no other catfish I’ve eaten because of what it’s feeding on.”

For him, cooking with this invasive species is like “killing two birds with one stone,” where he gets to help balance the environment, but at the same time serve some really delicious seafood.

European Green Crab

For being so tiny, the European green crabs have been making a huge splash over the last couple centuries. They are believed to have been first introduced to the United States in the mid-1800s on a European sailing ship that ended up near Cape Cod. These voracious eaters have been rapidly multiplying in New England. They like to devour sea creatures like mussels and clams, and even getting blamed for taking out whole clam beds and mussel colonies.

Chef Brendan Vesey of the Joinery restaurant in Newmarket, New Hampshire, has been making use of these crabby creatures by adding them to stocks. “We make them primarily into broths because they are so tough and small,” Vesey told CBC News. “You get this really deep sea flavor with the sweetness from the crab and I think it tastes better than lobster stock or certainly better than fish stock or mussel stock.”

He adds his special touches in preparing the stock. “We heat a pan up with a little slick of hot oil in it and we'll add the crabs to it as if we were doing a crab boil, and then add some onion and fennel and garlic and spices,” Vesey says. “And sometimes a little sherry or white wine, and then we'll add water.”

Rusty Crayfish

We may see red swamp crawfish in Louisiana-style boils, but the rusty crayfish is another beastly crustacean on its own.

When the rusty crayfish—originally from the Ohio River Valley—began invading the waters in the Northwoods of Wisconsin (most likely after being used as fishing bait), its population multiplied quickly. Since they’re dominant creatures, they have been displacing native crayfish from the waters, destroying vegetation, and eating fish eggs—a lot of them.

Students from a Wisconsin state university aiding the department of natural resources would fish out tons of these rusty crabs from the lake as part of a project. But they began taking a cue from the South, by cooking these clawed critters with Cajun seasonings, in crayfish boils, jambalayas, and étouffées. The rusty crayfish aren’t as large as the red swamp crawfish, but they still do the job.

"You never know when you're going to want to have a crayfish boil," Julia McCarthy, who previously worked on the project, told The Wall Street Journal. "People always think it's funny that I learned to shuck crayfish in northern Wisconsin.”

Nutria

Nutria aren’t the most pleasant rodents to look at. They’re rat-like creatures that are as large as a medium-sized dog and have Cheetos-colored-orange buck teeth. And they’re as invasive as it gets. Originally from South America, they were introduced to Louisiana for fur farming in the 1930s, but managed to escape from their enclosures in the 1940s after a hurricane damaged fences and pens. Nutria have been mowing down marshes in Louisiana ever since.

Because of FDA regulations banning the sale of wild-hunted animals for humans consumption, it’s unlikely we will find nutria meat sold in stores. But Louisiana chef Philippe Parola sees nutria as “the best red meat you’ve ever had,” he told Modern Farmer.

Apparently, nutria meat tastes like rabbit. A couple of years ago at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists held in New Orleans, Chef Johnny Blancher of Ye Olde College Inn prepared a special nutria-centric meal for his guests. Zoë Schlanger of Newsweek reported, “For our meal at the Ye Olde College Inn, Blancher soaked the nutria meat in milk (“It milds the flavor out.”) before baking it into individual corn cakes. The ‘nutria tamale pie’ was drizzled with honey from the restaurant’s nearby beehives and placed atop a dollop of pale green cebollita cream for a dainty, if a little gamey, first course.”

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