Monkfish is as ugly a beast as tasty its flesh is. It's a lovely firm fish that can take on hefty flavours and is simply exquisite in the company of saffron, ginger and curry seasoning.
Why is monkfish called 'monkfish'?
Does it look like a monk? Not really, unless like a very ugly, very scary monk. Apparently it used to be held in such low esteem by fishermen, it used to be either thrown away or given away to poor monks scrounging around the docks for free food. Hence possibly the name, ‘monk’ fish, derives.
It didn't used to be valued much because this fish, he’s not a beauty. I remember seeing it for the first time (outside my dinner plate) in a fish market in France and doing a double-take. Fish market is generally not a place of great aesthetical value, but – wow! This thing was something else.
In my view it's a spitting image of a mythical sea monster like the Kraken or Leviathan, or anything else out of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Scary, ugly and tasty
It is now hard for us to believe monkfish used to be chucked out or given away; it is a very highly prized fish these days. And as these things usually work, it is expensive because it’s overfished.
Hopefully, thanks to sustainability measures undertaken around the Cornish coast the stocks are increasing. Which is good news as it’s very tasty and very versatile, though it has to be pointed out that it may contain moderate levels of mercury and so not recommended in pregnancy.
Some compare the flesh to that of a lobster because it's firm, succulent and meaty. Thus it gets to be called ‘poor man’s lobster’ but pound for pound, depending on where you are, you might have to cough up the same for your dinner, whether you go for lobster or the fish.
Monkfish is a tail
The fish are basically a tasty tail (a bit like lobster tail, reinforcing the comparisons) attached to an enormous gaping mouth. It is easy to prepare efficiently as there is only the main bone running through the middle, easy to extract with a sharp knife.
But supermarkets and fishmongers often offer it boneless, ready to cook.
It is commonly grilled wrapped in bacon but I find the fish vastly overcooked by the time the bacon turns crispy. My favourite method if fast and spicy, as below.
The main tip for preparing it is to salt it. The flesh is firm but it does have a very high water content so the fillet needs sitting under a salt sprinkling for at least half an hour, before rinsing and drying.
How to season monkfish tail?
The spices to season the fish are turmeric and gochugaru, the Korean chilli powder mix, my personal favourite chilli powder. It’s not numbingly hot and it has beautiful smoky and fruity notes.
Mixed with turmeric for the vibrant colour, it gives the dish the curry-like spiciness without the overpowering curry scent which I am not a huge fan of. But if you are one and can’t get hold of gochugaru, by all means replace it with curry powder, as suggested in the ingredients list.
Cooking spiced monkfish
Chunks of monkfish coated in the spice mix land into foaming butter in the skillet, with the company of thinly sliced shallots and ginger. It only takes a minute to cook the fish on one side so you don’t even need to stir the aromatics.
Saffron is and optional extra but I adore the fragrance when it hits the hot butter so it’s worth it to spare a pinch. When the fish is turned over, a little stock or wine is added together with some crème fraiche to bubble away into gorgeous sauce.
I love it with a generous piece of baguette to dip in the sauce, but the more orthodox accompaniment will probably be plain steamed or boiled rice.
More fish recipes
Fish poached in butter: use halibut or another firm fish for a real treat. No, the fish is not greasy. Yes, you can reuse the butter.
An easy tray bake, cod and potatoes, is a bit like deconstructed and healthier fish and chips.
This recipe for salt and pepper halibut is also great with monkfish. Easy, healthy and tasty.
And if you didn’t think fish can be successfully stir fried, try my Thai fish stir fry recipe.