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Munchies

This Fish Makes People Trip Balls

"I saw the angel of death come to take me."

by Sirine Azouaoui; translated by Nicola Rose
Feb 16 2018, 3:00pm

Salema fishermen trying to warm at the Old Port in Marseille. Photo by Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters. 

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES France.

If you happen to come to Marseille, a seaside city in the south of France, you'll surely want to sample the seafood—thanks to the ocean smell leading straight to the Old Port, the hotspot for sea bream, perches, and grouper. But beware, for in the midst of this lovely aquatic assortment exists an ominous intruder: the salema, or saupe, as the French call it.

Here, this yellow-striped creature is known as the "crazy fish," for its skin, which is famous for its ability to induce hallucinations. It's the marine equivalent of psychedelic mushrooms, if you will. The story goes that if you eat a salema, you run the risk of spending the rest of your night feeling a bit, well... fishy.

One tourist, vacationing on the Côte d’Azur, recalls that after consuming a roast salema in a restaurant, he was unable to get behind the wheel. More than two hours afterwards, he found himself unusually bothered and distracted by animals and giant insects. In another restaurant, in Saint-Tropez, a fellow salema-eater recalls being convinced he had gone crazy, believing he could "see" people's yells and birds' chatter.

Smoking a freshly caught salema. Photo: Valeilles de Montmirail at the Villa Marie Jeanne restaurant.

Dr. Luc de Haro, a toxicologist at Marseille’s Anti-Poison Center, has seen several such incidents. "Visual and auditory hallucinations, drowsiness, vision trouble... some people think they see Batman or pink elephants. Every two or three years, you see another case. And surely there are more that go undocumented because the patient has slight amnesia afterwards."

If certain accounts are to be believed, the Romans organized big salema banquets, hoping to induce a collective trip.

On internet forums, fishers tell of catching salema and mixing them with other fish to make a bouillabaisse. Nightmares ensue, as well as abdominal pain, paralysis and "brain electricity." ("I saw the angel of death come to take me," recalls one sufferer.) The effects are similar to those of psychedelic mushrooms, more so than LSD, says Luc de Haro. "It's not so much disrupted perception of reality—more often the sufferer tends to create new images. And often, that person experiences it as an attack."

Or a pleasure, if we're to believe certain accounts, which tell how the Romans organized big salema banquets in hopes of inducing a collective trip. The story of the sarpa salpa—its Latin name—has traveled the world, reaching circles of psychedelic-experience enthusiasts. On drug-enthusiast site Shroomery, you can read a discussion about "sarpa tripping," started by a guy seeking information on the fish due to "current issues with chemical availability in my area." Someone else replies: "Seeing how the fish is both legal and easily purchasable, it is worth investigating. Additionally, how cool would it be to find a legal high that doubles as a delicious meal."

The sarpa salpa. Photo via Flickr user Biodiversity Heritage Library

In fact, what makes the “crazy fish” so crazy lies in what it eats itself: algae. The salema is a herbivorous fish—the only one in the Mediterranean. One of its favorite noshes is the caulerpa taxifolia, an algae that proliferates on the Marseille coasts and that contains neurotoxins. The salema only eats it at the end of summer, when no other options are really available. It's at this point that the fish gains its hallucinogenic potential. That’s when German and English tourists bring it home from the grocery and get "intoxicated"—seeing as the fish is often sold under the inoffensive label of "sea bream."

Nowadays, there remain only three countries crazy enough to continue consuming the salema: France, Tunisia, and Israel. In Marseille, don't expect to find it on the menu in the bistros of the Old Port. Most fishers who find salema in their nets throw them right back, given how bad the fish's reputation is. Rare is the Marseillais who has a good word to say about the fish.

The secret to preparing the salema is to gut it quickly after capture, thereby preventing the algae it eats from fermenting inside its intestines.

To experience the fish, you'll have to knock at the door of an adventuresome cook, such as those at Valeilles of Montmirail at the Villa Marie-Jeanne, a Mediterranean table d’hôte with a wood-burning fire. "The salema is disliked in France, but not in Tunisia, where it's very much appreciated—often cooked in a stew with chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes and spices."

Freshly caught salema smoked on pine needles, then grilled on a wood fire. Photo by Valeilles de Montmirail at the Villa Marie Jeanne restaurant.

In his Provence country home, the great-grandson of the founder of Marseille’s Olympique soccer club prepares the fish smoked on pine needles or in a filet with a sauce made of capers, anchovies, coriander and hot pepper. And for those who prefer not to have their dinner with a side of psychedelic effects? "The secret to preparing the salema is to gut it quickly after its capture, thereby preventing the algae it eats from fermenting inside its intestines."

For restaurant owner Christian Qui, the salema is served in tartar sauce, accented with olive oil and egg yolk. "It hides the taste of the fat, which is a bit strong, sometimes even kind of rancid depending on the season." Qui, a veritable poet of raw fish, works the Old Port fish market system like no one else—often leaving from there with salema to prepare in his restaurant, Sushi Qui. Once the fish are prepared, "people go crazy for the taste," but only in the figurative sense. Under Qui's watch, the salema is served in small doses, without any particular attempts to avoid psychic delirium. "I can feel that I’m 'floating' a bit sometimes, but no real hallucination. That said, I don't serve more than a half-filet."

Unless someone requests otherwise. One summer, when Qui had swapped his restaurant for a boat, a group of English artists got wind of the legend of the "dream fish." "They asked me to prepare them heaps of the stuff so they could get high. They were convinced it would do the trick." At six euros a kilo at the Old Port, the salema’s popularity will certainly be assured for a long time to come.