‘Eat ‘em to beat ‘em’: Sean Kuylen’s grilled lionfish recipe is a succulent solution to Belize’s invasive species problem
BY: Emily Nuñez
When life hands you invasive lionfish, you make a marinade. “Eat ‘em to beat ‘em” has been Belize’s answer to its pesky lionfish problem – and as far as problems go, few taste so sweet.
These spiky fish have been wreaking havoc on reefs in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and along the southeast coast of the United States. They are native to the Indo-Pacific, where other predators help keep their numbers in check.
However, in the Atlantic, where they’ve been living and proliferating for several decades, few creatures seem willing to risk impalement for a taste of lionfish flesh. Given free rein, these voracious eaters will gobble up everything in their path, depleting other fish stocks, altering ocean ecosystems, and potentially hurting fishers’ livelihoods.
By hunting lionfish in their non-native range, locals are helping to restore order to the oceans. The meal that ultimately comes from this pursuit is a nice bonus, according to Belizean chef Sean Kuylen.
“The magnificent lionfish is physically stunning – prancing her long spines, vibrant colors, and attention-grabbing stripes,” Kuylen said. “Her beauty commands the attention of both fish and human, but one prick and it goes from beauty to fatal attraction! As a chef, I can enjoy this gorgeous fish with mild, palatable white flesh by simply removing the venomous spines, turning the lionfish into a delicacy and helping to protect the reef all at the same time.”
Kuylen is a chef and restaurateur who specializes in “inspired Belizean cuisine,” or contemporary versions of classic dishes. After studying culinary arts and hospitality in San Francisco, he returned to the Caribbean – and ultimately to Belize – to resume work with the ingredients and recipes he first fell in love with.
His recipe below is quintessentially Belizean, but if lionfish haven’t found their way to an ocean near you, substituting with a white fish of your choice will do.
Chef Sean Kuylen’s Grilled Lionfish with Whipped Papaya Butter and Green Mango Chayote Slaw in a Papaya Seed Vinaigrette
Time: 30 minutes
4 whole lionfish, despined and cleaned
1 medium ripe papaya, diced with seeds reserved
1 small carrot, julienned
2 medium green mangos, peeled and julienned
1 chayote squash, peeled and julienned
3 radishes, thinly sliced
1 small bunch of cilantro
½ cup of panela or palm sugar
1 cup lime juice
½ cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cloves
Salt, black pepper, and cayenne, to taste
Instructions for whipped papaya butter:
1. In a saucepot, melt the panela or palm sugar until caramelized. Add the diced papaya and the juice of one lime and continue to cook to a bronze color or when the liquid has evaporated.
2. Season with salt, nutmeg, cloves, and cayenne to taste. Let cool for 15 minutes and blend whole cold butter until velvety smooth.
Instructions for papaya seed vinaigrette:
1. In a blender, combine the apple cider vinegar, papaya seeds, Dijon mustard, honey, salt, and pepper and blend on high speed until combined. Gradually drizzle 5 ounces of olive oil in the running blender until the dressing is fully emulsified. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Instructions for slaw:
1. Combine the green mango, carrot, chayote, and radish in a bowl and toss in the papaya seed vinaigrette. Finish with freshly torn cilantro sprigs.
Instructions for grilled lionfish:
1. Season the lionfish with salt, pepper, and the remaining 3 ounces of olive oil. Grill or pan sear on a hot griddle or skillet for about 6 minutes on each side
Instructions for plating:
Ladle a generous amount of the papaya butter and set the grilled lionfish on top. Finish with the slaw. Enjoy!
This column and recipe appear in the 20th Anniversary Issue (Fall 2021) of Oceana Magazine. Read it online here.