During 25 years exploring the world’s most remote and treacherous rivers, extreme angler Jeremy Wade—the star of River Monsters, Animal Planet’s hit fishing show—has contracted malaria, survived a plane crash and narrowly escaped drowning. He’s also eaten some pretty funky fish.
“I’ve been known to reduce a piranha to a pile of bones in less than a minute,” Wade told me—reversing the natural sequence of things. “Chuck it in some water with a little bit of sauce and that’s it, or cook it on a stick over a fire.” (Other recipes suggest grilling it in a banana leaf or stewing with tomatoes.) Amazon fishermen have tried to persuade Wade that piranha soup is an aphrodisiac, but he’s not sure he believes them. “It’s quite bony flesh—some people say it’s like steel wool mixed with needles.”
His favorite river-swimming delicacy is tambaqui, a big, slab-sided Amazonian fish with teeth similar to a horse’s. When the river floods, the fish congregate around the base of rubber trees, crunching on the fallen seeds. “Because they feed on this very high quality organic food source, their flesh is absolutely amazing.” (Farm-raised varieties fed on pellet food aren’t half as tasty, Wade notes.) The fish develop a thick layer of fat, and the best way to cook them is over the embers of a fire. “It will sizzle in its own fat,” Wade says happily.
Nile perch, with its fluffy white flesh, is another treat. And Wade—upon visiting the rivers of Texas—was pleasantly surprised with his meal of “gar balls,” a derivative of alligator gar, a hideously ugly fish with skin so tough that it has to be split with an ax. But minced, spiced, rolled into lumps and fried, nothing is too bad.
Not all his gustatory experiments have been so successful. He’s had one too many slimy catfish (a good way to remove the goo on their skin is with lime or lemon juice, he’s found) and he is not a fan of salted arapaima, transported in the bottom of Amazonian boats under questionable hygienic conditions. (He concedes its usefulness as a ready-to-eat jungle ration, though.) Perhaps the most revolting fish dish? Six-inch roach fish caught in Romania, at the Danube River delta. They were boiled “literally until they disintegrated,” he says. Then the water was poured through a sieve, to remove bones. “What comes out on the other end is this sort of soup,” Wade says. “I didn’t particularly enjoy that either.”
On River Monsters, Wade always lets his conquests go, often after cradling them in his arms briefly, like a bouquet. These days, with the state of the world’s fisheries, he says he feels guilty eating fish and always makes sure that a population is in good shape before partaking. Furthermore, he says, the most important factor in a river fish’s taste is the quality of a river. “A lot of fish, caught from clean running water, are pretty tasty whereas the same species, caught in a sluggish pond, isn’t going to taste the same.”
The other key element is, of course, freshness. “I’ve been a bit spoiled when it comes to that,” Wade says.
—by Abigail Tucker