It's not the flesh-tearing teeth of a piranha that freak me out. It's the way they leap a foot in the air, like fleshy wet bullets, as they die.
My friend Morwenna has been obsessed with piranhas ever since she discovered that an attack by just four of the little swimmers could equal certain death. So obsessed, in fact, that she got the famous tattooist Dr. Woo to ink a fine drawing of one across her left ribs—an act that got her branded a "slut" by one Guardian commenter ("piranha" is apparently a Brazilian invective used against promiscuous women) and called "fucked up" to her face after she admitted, in print, to eating one.
But is it so fucked up? To eat a fish that, if there's nothing else on the menu, will turn their turbo jaws to human flesh? Or, in a country where quinoa, guinea pig, and the metre-long river beast paiche have been eaten for thousands of years, is eating piranha a natural, harmless way to fend off hunger?
I went along to Andina, a delicious Peruvian kitchen in the heart of Shoreditch, to see for myself—to kill, cook, and eat my very own twin set of deadly piranhas under the watchful, expert eye of chef Martin Morales.
"There's not an overfishing of piranha; there's not a shortage of them," explains Morales, pulling a couple of clear plastic bags out from behind the kitchen counter. "It's a sustainable fish in Peru." I look down and realise that inside each bag is a plastic tub, holding a gently lolling piranha. They're smaller than I'd expected—less razor-sharp killer and more overgrown, silver-speckled goldfish, like something you'd win at an apocalyptic, end-of-the-pier coconut shy.
"People are squeamish about eating something new sometimes," says Morales, piercing the outer layer of the first bag. "Maybe certain animals have been portrayed in the media in the wrong way. In Peru, we eat all kinds of animals that have and haven't been in Hollywood films. Many of them are farmed, sometimes they're wild, but as long as they're sustainable for the local communities, I think it's fine."
Now, at this point I should probably admit something: The only time I've ever actually successfully caught anything other than an illness was off the coast of New Zealand. I reeled in a shellfish so pink, armoured, and spiderlike that the moment it started scuttling around the boat I leapt clean out of my seat into the sea, and swam like buggery to shore. I was terrified. So it was with more than a little alarm that I watched these two little silver flaps of bone and muscle start hurling themselves about their tubs like fireworks.
Luckily, Morales was unfazed. "The reason it's not been eaten here is because we would rather cook with local, sustainable fish," he explains, gently piercing the fish behind the eye with a knife. "To bring piranha here is super-costly and creates a difficult carbon footprint. But we like being adventurous." Morales will not tell me how he sourced these piranha. I ask, at least four times, only to be met each time with polite, rock-like silence. (He does suggest, however, that people interested in buying their own piranha can ask their fishmonger or look online for a retailer that guarantees a sustainable supply.) I do know that it cost hundreds of pounds to do so, making this probably the most expensive plate of fish and chips I'll ever eat.
The fish are tiny. There's very little flesh on them, so we can't prepare them in a traditional ceviche. Instead, Morales opts for an escabeche—dusted in a little flour and salt, fried, and served with a sauce of red onion, peppers, and tomatoes, with a delicious avocado, quinoa, palm heart, and starfruit salad on the side.
But, before we can get to that, we have to de-scale and gut the fish. The fins are trimmed and Martin scratches the sharp side of the knife across the skin like an archaeologist dusting off a precious artefact. As I rummage around the inside of my piranha, pulling out guts and organs and various other smeary chunks of anatomy, I manage to scratch my finger on one of its teeth. And so, in my fight with a piranha, it is the dead fish that draws first blood.
Knuckle-deep in fish, I ask Morales if it's common in Peru for people to forage for and cook wild food, like piranhas. "We're talking about extreme poverty," he says, suddenly very serious. "We work with a charity that has posts across three different area of Peru. The children we're working with have to walk three hours, in minus two degrees, in shoes made of old tyres to get to the nearest store. In that context, of course, foraging is just natural. You have to. People find and source ingredients all the time as well as plough their fields."
Like half of all families in the Andes, Morales's grandmother, Mamita Naty, grew her own vegetables. "My grandmother had a stove made of mud that she had to rebuild every two months," he explains. "But she'd have guinea pigs living underneath. She'd muck it out every day and make sure it was nice and clean. Of course, she didn't eat things off the floor; no one does. But in that context you've got to just eat whatever you can. And there's an amazing variety out there."
Once the fish has been fried in hot vegetable oil, Martin lays it out on a small wooden board covered in corn leaves, with the tomato sauce, olives, a soft-boiled egg, and a couple of plantain chips. Suddenly, these two little toothy killers look very approachable. Their threatening underbite may be roaring open like something from a movie poster, but they're barely the size of my palm.
And what do they taste like? Well, once I've scraped enough flesh off the bones to actually get a morsel, the closest thing I can probably say is lemon sole. Which is, as any Flemming fan will know, one of James Bond's favourite dishes. It's rather apt, I suppose, that this potentially deadly, villainous fish, known for its jaws, would come out tasting like the lunch of a trained secret service killer. But it's maybe not all that exotic.
Do I feel guilty about eating a piranha? No. Do I feel uneasy about the air miles, cost, and environmental implication of sourcing a fish from the other side of the world? Of course. (But then again, I've eaten enough New Zealand apples in my life to have wrangled with that particular guilt before.) Was the taste worth the effort? Hard to say.
But it certainly didn't make me feel heroic. And, despite what the internet may tell you, I don't think piranha has any aphrodisiac qualities. What can I say—I may smell of fish, but that doesn't make me a slut.
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in December 2014.