Uh oh! Did I just eat an endangered species?
Fortunately, the queen conch ( Strombus gigas) isn’t quite endangered (yet). But the species has been over-harvested in the Florida Keys, leading to a drastic decline (pdf) in its reproductive capabilities. The state of Florida has placed a moratorium on conch farming, and other conch exporting countries have put restrictions and quotas in place to protect the threatened sea creatures. (My conch came from Honduras, where, supposedly, they are not particularly threatened.)
Also mildly disturbing is that sea snails are often cut down in their prime. Conch can live up to 40 years—if not for we gastronauts who devour the mollusks.
When I think of conch, the first thing that comes to mind is Lord of the Flies. In William Golding’s allegory on modern civilization, boys marooned on a tropical island use a conch shell to bring order to their meetings, and whoever holds the shell has the right to speak. It's sort of a grim association, given how that story turned out. I never realized you could actually eat the snails that called the shells home, though.
But it turns out conch is a relatively common snack in Caribbean countries. (There are more than 60 species of conch, which are in the family Strombidae, worldwide, and Strombus gigas is one of at least seven species sliming around the western Atlantic.) Conch is served in chowders, patés, fritters or even raw. I’ve heard of conch specials at some sushi joints in D.C., and Frommer’s reports that restaurants in the Bahamas sometimes serve it live.
I tried conch at two D.C. restaurants, the only two I could find that serve it on the regular menu. (And where a kindly bartender informed me that the word "conch" is pronounced, to my everlasting embarrassment, “konk.”)
At Jose Andres’ Café Atlantico, conch fritters are fried, giving them a molten center, and served with avocado and jicama “ravioli.” Food Network’s Giada de Laurentiis visited and acquired the recipe. The conch was slightly chewy, like squid, and tasted somewhere in between scallop and crab. There are only subtle differences in the flavor profiles of these various shelled sea invertebrates.
But most anything tastes good sautéed in butter with onions and finished with cream. So I felt the need for a second conch expedition. I stopped by Jin, an “Asian Caribbean Soul lounge” that seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis. The restaurant was almost empty as I sat down and ordered their soul take on conch fritters (folded into a cornmeal batter with peppers and deep fried), but first I played dumb.
“So, what does, uh, conch taste like?” I asked.
The waiter replied, “well I don’t know. They don’t really taste like anything. They’re just kinda rubbery and taste like seafood. But I like them!”
To the waiter’s credit, they were very tasty. Crispy, spicy, with the salty taste of the sea; delicious.
I’m still not satisfied, though. Not until I can come across raw conch. Even at Café Atlantico you can’t find a whole sea snail squiggling around (Both restaurants get their conch shipped in frozen and already diced). Guess I’ll have to head to the Caribbean for that experience.
By Brandon Springer