If you've ever wanted to eat unicorn, then surely you've pondered the possibility of eating a real-life cryptid, the so-called living fossil known as the coelacanth. And you wouldn't be the first - in fact, there's a long history of adventurous eaters tasting this paleolithic creature's flesh.
Here's everything you ever wanted to know about what this sixty-five million year old species tastes like, including the possibility of impending digestive tract doom, and a suitable alternative to coelacanth sashimi.
The top image is a preserved coelacanth stored at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria.
(Re)discovery of the Hated Fish
The 1938 re-discovery of the coelacanth is the definition of lucky catch, as a London museum curator found an odd looking fish amongst a pile of the fish headed for market. After confirmation of the identity of the long thought extinct beast, 14 years passed before the next found its way into a fisherman's net.
Prior to indentification, fisherman called the ceolecanth Gombessa (translating to worthless in the native tongue) for years. The poor tasting oil exuded by the fish soiled the rest of the catch, with salting necessary to make a Gombessa edible.
65 Million Year Survival Lifestyle
The poor smell and taste could be a combination of the stagnant lifestyle of the fish along with its extremely long lifespan, often reaching sixty years, nearly exceeding that of many humans.
Keep the Pepto-Bismol Handy
One of the first people to encounter the coelacanth in the twentieth century described it as poor smelling, "mucus-covered" - a quality rarely associated with decent food. People who have eaten coelacanth say its most notable feature is its oily flesh. Apparently, this oil soon makes its way through your body, as one adventurous carnivore wrote:
It was difficult […] to contain the oil that was pooling in substantial quantities in the lower rectum.
We can find no description of coelacanth flavor, but the combination of waxes and esters within its secretions act as a nice laxative - humans are unable to digest most wax esters, so the molecules pass on through. This coelacanth taste test is likely not an isolated incident, as DNA tests performed on captured coelecanths show very little genetic diversity.
If you take a bite of coelecanth, it will smell bad, taste odd, and likely send you running for the toilet. Recently, a coelecanth caught off the coast of Indonesia was sold to a local restaurant. The fish became a display item, not a dinner item, for the 17 hours prior to its death due to a severe change in pressure.
What common fish tastes like coelacanth ?
The hagfish looks rather different than a coelecanth, resembling an eel, but it does live at low depths like a coelecanth. In addition, hagfish exude mucus much like a coelacanth - at a rate that turns a 5 gallon bucket of water into a smelly, filament- laden slime in seconds - this video demonstrates what a couple milliliters of hagfish slime can do in a laboratory setting.
Hagfish are typically avoided as a food source due to their generally disgusting appearance and viscosity, but they do have a nutritional appeal, and their mucus is added to egg whites in some Korean dishes. One scientist who ingested the slime noted a salty taste. Hagfish is often sold as an aphrodisiac too.
Should you eat one?
The coelacanth is an endangered species, with an estimated 500 alive today, but just for the sake of argument let's say this number is a lowball estimate. Some have showed up off the coast of Indonesia recently and several more were caught off the Southeastern Coast of Africa.
Maybe a groundswell of support and a leap in logic to associate the coelacanth with the aphrodisiac characteristics of the hagfish could land the prehistoric beast on the roster of your local Captain D's or Red Lobster. Until that day, the Escolar, often called Butterfish on fine dining menus, will send you on a similar digestive adventure, but with a better taste.
Images courtesy of CC sources and the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. Tip of the hat to Straight Dope for the quote. Sources linked within the article.