The arrowtooth flounder is the most common food fish in the Gulf of Alaska. It looks something like a halibut. And it tastes, well, not like a halibut. "Inedible'' is the word the Alaska Department of Fish and Game once used to use to define the arrowtooth as table fare.
And yet, one of the great dreams of the commercial fishing business in the 49th state has always been to make marketable what fisheries managers call the Gulf's huge "biomass" of arrowtooth. The Fishery Industrial Technology Center in Kodiak, a division of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, spent years trying to figure out a way to make the flesh of the arrowtooth mimic the firm, flaky texture of always tasty halibut when cooked.
The center met with little success. Nonetheless, arrowtooth is now in a market near you. The Wal-Mart Supercenter off Dimond Boulevard in Anchorage stocks it in the freezer case, and it appears arrowtooth is available in Wal-Marts across the country. The reviews coming in from the few Wal-Mart customers who have posted comments online are not good.
"Nasty" is how one reviewer put it, which just about sums up all the reviews.
Fillets of arrowtooth might look like fillets of halibut -- or at least edible fillets of fish -- but they still contain a dirty little secret.
From a culinary standpoint, arrowtooth are cursed with a naturally occurring enzyme that goes off when cooked and turns the fish to mush. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration describes the situation this way: "Upon landing, a proteolytic enzyme released from a myxosporean parasite causes softening of the flesh ...(but) recently, several food grade additives have been successfully used that inhibit enzymatic breakdown."
"Inhibit" is the operative word there, according to Chuck Crapo, a researcher at the Kodiak technology center who spent a lot of time working with arrowtooth in the 1990s. No additive has been found to stop the fish from turning to mush. The additives only partially work, he said, and "the process of doing this (treatment) is so hard" he wonders if the fillets now appearing in the market were treated.
Short of treating arrowtooth to block the enzymes, he added, selling the fish is a crap shoot. The consumer might get a fillet low in enzymes, and that fillet might hold together when cooked. But the odds are low.
"There's really no telling which fillets are going to be soft," he said. "A large percentage of them are going to turn out to be soft and mushy."
'A lot of disappointed customers out there'
This has not, however, stopped Chinese fish processors from pushing arrowtooth fillets into American groceries. Not even the blowback from Wal-Mart customers seems to have had much of an effect. "Do Not Purchase this flounder," reads the very first customer review posted on Wal-Mart's own website for "Household and Grocery" reviews. "This flounder turned out very mushy. It was completely inedible."
"NASTY!" reads the second review. "The first time I bought this I thought maybe I had a bad fish. So silly me, bought another package later in the month. I just LOVE flounder. Again, the fish was prepared as directed and when I removed it from the pan it was total MUSH. This was nasty. I tried to eat it even though it was mush, but I was not able to enjoy this."
There are another five reviews posted. They're all the same. The last one says simply: "This is the nastiest fish i have ever tasted!!"
The researchers in Kodiak are not surprised. "It's not a high quality product," Crapo said. Still, he and coworker Scott Smiley have noticed arrowtooth creeping into the marketplace. The Chinese, Smiley said, have been using the readily available fish to try to jump start a fish-processing industry. "I don't think it will work," he added.
"I always thought there were going to be a lot of disappointed customers out there," said Crapo, who confessed to being a bit "puzzled" as to why a major grocery chain would put the fish on its shelves.
"It's probably a fish people are only going to buy once," he said, and then be left with a bad aftertaste, so to speak.
The grocery manager at the Dimond Wal-Mart, however, said he's heard nary a hint of negative feedback from consumers. "I didn't get any complaints," he said, and there has been no email from the home office suggesting the product be taken off the shelves. The manager, however, admitted he wasn't intimately familiar with arrowtooth.
"What's the product?" he asked. He then put the telephone on hold to go look for it. He came back to say he couldn't find it. The Wal-Mart on Dimond Boulevard is a big store. The arrowtooth is there, however. It's in the frozen food case next to the pricey frozen sockeye salmon. The packaging for the two products is similar. Both trumpet their "Wild Caught" nature, though the salmon adds "Alaska Wild Caught."
On the back of the arrowtooth package, there are references to the clean waters of the "Pacific Northwest" and a suggestion to serve the fillets in a "cream sauce."
If one looks closely, the packaging reveals the arrowtooth is a "Product of China." Smiley said he expects the fish themselves have been coming from the Bering Sea, though Crapo noted some Gulf of Alaska trawlers have been selling whole, frozen arrowtooth to China, as well, and the catch of arrowtooth in the Gulf has been growing.
"In Alaska, arrowtooth were typically only caught incidentally in fisheries targeting other species, but a directed fishery has recently developed for the species," notes NOAA's "FishWatch." The website trumpets arrowtooth as "a good, low-fat source of B vitamins and an excellent source of niacin," but does warn consumers:
Arrowtooth flounder muscle rapidly degrades when heated, resulting in a paste-like texture when cooked. In the past, this breakdown has limited efforts to develop a market for this fish. Recently however, several food additives have been successful in stopping this breakdown, increasing the marketability of arrowtooth flounder products as inexpensive flounder.
Judging by the comments on the Walmart consumer-review website and elsewhere, the latter claim as to treatment with enzyme-inhibiting additives would appear suspect. A reviewer on the Low Carb Friends website, for instance, posted this review:
I decided to make Carolyn F's 'Poor Man's Lobster.' I found fresh wild Flounder at the local WinCo market and began. I carefully set the fish in the water mixture and let it cook. When I opened the pan, there it was, in a GAZILLION mushy pieces ... OK, who took the glue out of the Flounder? Not to be outwitted by a piece of dead fish, I carefully spooned the crumbled paste onto the broiling pan and proceeded to broil it to dry it out thinking this would help -- NOT. Have you ever eaten cornmeal mush that tasted like a fish swam by? OH MY ... this was the worst.
"You get what you pay for,'' Crapo said, noting that the one big attraction of arrowtooth to consumers might be that it is cheap compared to other fishes. And Smiley said that if people cook arrowtooth fast in an industrial-grade microwave, the odds are good the fish will hold together. If one can cook it fast enough -- so the enzymes lack the necessary time to make mush of the fish's flesh, the researchers agreed, the arrowtooth filets will hold together.
The only problem then, Smiley said, is that the arrowtooth ends up overcooked, and "most people don't like overcooked fish.''
Then again, maybe some people like fish mush. The first critical review on the Walmart website dates to Nov. 20, 2009, and the fish is still available in Wal-Mart stores. Smiley couldn't imagine their being a market for fish pudding or fish porridge, but who knows.
"A lot of it is being caught now," Crapo said. "It is a puzzle. The first time I saw it sold I sort of smiled ... (but) there's a lot of people who don't know much about fish."
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com