Antigua is currently experiencing a bit of a drought so the brackish water pond beside Darkwood beach is definitely getting much shallower so the tarpon and small fish named callie in that pond are unusually concentrated and likely much easier to catch than normal. On my trip to beautiful Darkwood beach today for my daily swim I saw some young men in the distance fishing in that pond. Curious to see what they were fishing for I made my way over.
I said my greetings and soon got to chatting with them. I’ve seen many tarpon jumping there so I asked if they ever caught any with the hand lines they were using. “No man” one answered. “The tarpon when they get big you can’t catch them on the line. You have to net them”. I wondered why they would net them. I’ve always heard that tarpon are inedible. In fact if you Google “are tarpon edible”, among the hundreds of articles telling you that they are too bony to be edible, you may not find a single article that telling you that they are. This never quite made sense to me. Especially in the West Indies, picking through bones was just always part of eating fish as far as I knew. Bone-free fillets is one way of preparing fish … but in these days of ecological awareness restricting oneself to just this mode of preparation would seem to be far too wasteful of precious natural resources (the fish) to be conscionable.
Speaking to the young men I was delighted to learn that tarpon is used to make a local dish called shad which I was told is often served with a polenta-like local dish called fungi, and a mix of cooked greens called chop-up. Chop-up they said is made from eggpland, spinach, okra, and a type of cactus (which they called cassie), all mashed up together. “A man meal deh” the young man commented. “Strong!” one of the other ones added for emphasis. Being a big fan of healthy eating through the consumption of diets richer in vegetables (particularly local vegetables), I made a mental note to learn more.
I was glad to hear than Antiguan country people had once again nonchalantly jumped decades ahead of the times in making efficient use of the tarpon flesh as a renewable resource that others might have left unused. Still I wondered how they did it where so many others appear to have failed. “You have to pull the tarpon (stretch it) when you just catch it” the first young man told me in answer to that question. “My grandfather taught me to do it. Then when it’s cooked there’s more space between the bones”.
The young men informed me that I could taste tarpon cooked in the local dish “shad” at Antigua’s National Food Fair in November. But they left me with one word of advice should I try to cook tarpon on my own. “With the tarpon you use the young ones … understand”?