Feisty `frankenfish' now fugitive in N.Y.

Snakeheads: Their U.S. fate uncertain, the Chinese delicacies are becoming harder to find in markets and on menus.

August 03, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The snakehead has gone underground.

The Chinese delicacy - known for burying itself in the mud to avoid capture in the wild - is becoming harder to find in fish markets and restaurants along the crowded streets of its adopted hometown.

Here in Chinatown, some merchants say they no longer sell it. Restaurant owners have scratched snakehead soup - made with ginger and watercress - from the menu. Even the fishmongers who have snakeheads aren't advertising; they keep the Yangtze River native hidden among eels in the back of their shops.

Snakeheads are legal to sell in New York and in most other states.

But last month, Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton proposed a federal ban on importing live snakeheads, leading some Chinatown merchants and restaurateurs to believe that it is illegal to sell, cook or serve the fish.

"Even I don't know if I can sell them yet," Hang Lam, manager of Wong Hing Wong Market on East Broadway, says when asked about a lone snakehead in the eel tank.

Norton's proposal came after Maryland officials discovered an infestation of northern snakeheads - voracious predators that can slither along on their fins, breathe air and survive on land for three days - lurking in a Crofton pond behind a Dunkin' Donuts.

A Maryland man dumped two adult fish, a male and a female bought in New York, into the weedy pond two years ago because they had outgrown his aquarium.

Now the pond is loaded with juvenile snakeheads.

State officials, worried the fish could wriggle into the nearby Little Patuxent River and munch their way to the Chesapeake Bay, may poison the pond to kill the snakeheads. A state panel has recommended rotenone, a plant-based poison, and Department of Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox will probably announce his decision next week.

On Mott Street and other busy Chinatown thoroughfares, the word snakehead carries a sinister meaning. It refers to someone who smuggles Chinese immigrants into America.

But the fish is valued for its taste and healing powers.

Until last month, customers at the Sweet-n-Tart Restaurant could special-order snakehead soup with regular menu items such as ginger pig knuckles and stir-fried frog. The soup, cooked in ginger and served with almonds, watercress and mixed vegetables, was a favorite among customers dining family-style. A pot, which used two fish, cost $75 and served 10.

"We did serve it. No more now. As soon as we saw the newspaper, we had to stop," says Spencer Chan, owner of the Mott Street restaurant for 15 years.

Even if he wanted to sell snakeheads, Chan says, he wouldn't be able to find them.

Some merchants, such as Lam, refuse to sell them. At Grand Seafood Market, workers say they don't sell them despite evidence to the contrary in the eel tank.

But at JFK Discount Seafood, snakeheads are on display for $5.95 apiece, about a buck more than most markets charge. About 15 of them swim listlessly in a plastic bin on the sidewalk - slightly more active than the dried squid but not as lively as the crabs.

Other than the occasional passer-by snapping a photo of the fish, workers say only steady customers are buying it - cubed for soup.

"It gives you more energy for [the] body. It's very good," says Susan Huang, whose husband manages JFK Discount Seafood.

Many Asian cultures believe the snakehead has healing powers; Huang's family is among them.

After she gave birth to her first child, she ate the soup for 10 days to help heal her scars.

"It's very good for making the muscles return to good," she says as she rings up customers buying orange bags full of fish and vegetables. "All the women say, `Eat this fish.' So we bought it, and we tried it."

Three months pregnant with her second child, Huang plans to make the soup again after giving birth - if it's still legal then.

Eric Yap, who grew up in Malaysia, recalls his mother and grandmother making soup of haruan, the Malaysian word for snakehead. They would cook the fish with dried dates and water for three hours, then serve it to him hot to drink.

"There's something in that fish that has the power of healing," says Yap, 26, a waiter at the Singapore Cafe, a trendy pan-Asian eatery.

Though snakehead-as-healer may sound bizarre, he says Westerners shouldn't dismiss the idea. "Other people don't believe it because it's not so scientific. But the Chinese have been around for more than 2,000 years. There is a lot of philosophy and things we might learn from."

Yap says snakeheads lose some of their nutrients as frozen fillets. And though a federal ban on importing them might save other ponds from Crofton's fate, Yap worries it would unintentionally cause the Chinese to suffer.

"There are still a lot of old people that eat it," he says. "Not a lot of old people will take Tylenol for pains. Me, I don't even take Tylenol. I use Tiger Balm."

Snakehead-seekers must maneuver among racks of knock-off handbags and stacks of Chinese worry balls along winding streets crowded with pedestrians carrying umbrellas to guard against the heat.

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