Conch: The Queen of Caribbean Cuisine
By Erin Keaveney
Most people who encounter a conch on the beach immediately associate the animal with its famous armor, as many believe the sounds of the ocean can be heard inside if one presses an ear up to the opening of an abandoned shell. But Caribbean natives who happen upon a conch hope they won't find an empty shell, as they hear a different sound: the dinner bell.
Conch has long been a culinary staple in the Caribbean. A native to the warm waters of the western Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, the queen conch species (strombus gigas) - also called the pink conch - thrives as a bottom-feeding herbivore that tracks the ocean floor for algae and particles found in sand.
With a texture often compared to clams or mussels, conch is a versatile delicacy that can be served raw in salads, or cooked in stews or gumbos.
History of conch in the Caribbean
The queen conch has a long history in the Caribbean waters, harvested by early civilizations for practical use including food and tools. Some of the earliest records of conch use include the Arawak and Caribe Indians, who put the sea snail to use by utilizing the shell for everything from horns to jewelry.
One of the earliest culinary connoisseurs of the conch was Christopher Columbus, as he and his crew discovered the mollusk while exploring off the coast of Cuba. Historians also point to early European settlers in the Americas as fans of conch meat, which was consumed raw or cooked in salads, stews and other dishes.
Historically, the conch has an important significance in Caribbean culture, as it has become a recognized staple in local communities for its commercial properties. Though it has appeared on endangered species lists in recent years, the conch population has made a steady comeback to remain a vital piece of the Caribbean identity.
Current culinary uses for conch
Today, the conch is still recognized throughout most tropical cultures, particularly the Caribbean, as a culinary delicacy to be enjoyed year-round. Conch is often noted for its nutritional value, particularly as being a good source of protein and vitamins E and B12. While conch is high in cholesterol, it's also a good source of magnesium and is low in fat, making it an added draw to seafood lovers.
Fresh, ready-to-eat conch should be white in color with pink and orange edges. The most popular piece of the snail to cook with is the foot muscle, which is tough but has a sweet flavor. The body of the conch is tough in texture, making it challenging to cook without first tenderizing it, often through pounding with a kitchen mallet or other heavy object.
Although the conch may be served in many different ways, the most popular are conch fritters, chowder, salad and cracked conch. More diverse palettes might be up to try a more unusual incarnation of conch, including burgers and sushi. Many chefs recommend cooking conch as you would squid, utilizing an all-or-nothing method. Conch cooks quickly and tends to toughen up as it heats, but will become tender if simmered or stewed for a longer period of time.
Perhaps the most well-known conch dish in the Caribbean is conch fritters, a treat many locals and those who travel to the Caribbean are familiar with. Curious to try? Make a version at home with an authentic conch fritter recipe:
Ingredients for Traditional Conch Fritters
* 1 pound conch meat diced into small pieces
* 8 ounces all-purpose flour
* 3 egg whites
* 3 eggs
* 3 tablespoons cornstarch
* 1/4 cup milk
* 2 ounces finely diced green pepper
* 2 ounces finely diced red pepper
* 2 ounces fresh chopped cilantro
* 2 ounces finely diced yellow pepper
* 2 ounces finely diced red onion
* 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
* oil for frying
Cooking Directions for Bahamian Conch Fritters
1. Combine the flour and cornstarch and sift.
2. Whisk the eggs, egg whites and milk until completely mixed.
3. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and mix to form a smooth paste.
4. Mix in all the other ingredients except the oil for frying.
5. Cover the conch piece completely with the batter.
6. Heat up half of a deep pot of oil to 350°F.
7. Drop the conch batter into the oil one large spoonful at a time and fry until golden brown.
8. Remove the finished conch fritters from the oil and place on a paper towel covered plate to drain.
9. Add salt and pepper if needed and serve with your favorite dipping sauces or with the coconut and lime curry sauce that follows.
*Recipe courtesy of Suite101.com.
Erin Keaveney writes articles about travel in the Caribbean for the Marriott Resorts
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Views expressed in the article are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of CaribbeanChoice, its staff or members.