Snakehead / Mudfish
[Mudfish, Snakehead murrel; Dalag (Philippine); Murel, Murrel, Varaal (India); Cá Lóc Cá Qua, Cá Chuoi (Viet); Nga Yant (Burma); Ikan Gabus (Indonesia); Channa striata and other Channa species]
This excellent eating fish is sold as "Mudfish" in Southern California's Asian fish markets, and is one of the most important food fish in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. It's also very popular in India and the Philippines. Both wild and farmed snakeheads are sold live in Asia, and will stay alive for several days in a basket of wet straw - but if you get caught with a live Mudfish here in California, it'll be you that's in very deep (legal) mud.
The Northern Snakehead (C. argus), which can stand cooler temperatures, now infests some parts of the United States, including the Potomac and the Mississippi Basin, introduced by brain dead aquarium owners, under-educated Asians and careless fish farmers. All Snakeheads are voracious predators and are not in any way threatened - they're more on the threat side - so eat as many as you'd like, they're delicious!
Snakeheads can grow to 40 inches and 6.6 pounds but the photo specimen, wild caught in Vietnam, was 18-3/4 inches and 2 pound 12-5/8 ounces. It's a fresh water fish preferring muddy water, and like the notorious walking catfish can survive extreme conditions. It can travel long distances over land to exploit new ponds and rivers.
More on Varieties of Fish (very large
Snakehead flesh is pink or nearly white depending on cooking method, with an attractive flavor - most people should like it. Wet cooked, the flesh is tender, fine grained and does not flake apart, making it excellent for soups, stews and curries. It is also used to make fermented fish sauces, especially Pa Daek in Laos and Nam Pla Raa in Issan, Thailand where only freshwater fish are used. For details see our Tuk Prahok Sauce page.
This fish is extremely slimy, making it rather difficult to hold on to until it is scaled, beheaded, cleaned and rinsed several times. Scaling, cleaning, filleting and skinning a whole fish will take 20 min to 25 minutes depending on your skill level and tools.
Buying: This is a popular fish in Southeast Asia, so is available in most Asian fish markets here in Southern California. The photo specimen, 18-3/4 inches long, weighing 2 pounds 12-5/8 ounces, was purchased from a Philippine market in Los Angles (Eagle Rock, actually) for 2016 US $3.99 / pound. Some of the large Asian market also have this fish already scalled and partially cleaned in the frozen food cases.
Scales: Snakehead scales are very large but not difficult to scrape off, with just moderate flying about.
Cleaning: Cleaning is a little different from most fish - there's lots of innards running from the head all the way to the tail. After making the usual incision from vent to under the jaw, make a cut into the body cavity on each side of the long bottom fin and pull it out. The innards are tough and well attached up at the head end. Use kitchen shears to cut them loose from the head (and immediately rinse off the green stuff that may spurt out). The gills are difficult to pull, you would need to cut them loose at the ends with kitchen shears, then pull them with long nose pliers. This is a waste of time as I do not recommend the head for stock, just cut the whole head off and toss it.
Skin: The skin has almost no shrink, and becomes quite tender when cooked. Fillets can be pan fried skin-on with no problems, and I recommend it that way. A skin-on fillet dropped into hot poaching liquid will curl only slightly. The skin has no strong or off flavor, but can be easily removed using the long knife and cutting board Method. In Asia, the skins are often sold separately from the fish, and are valued for making stock.
Fillet: Filleting this fish is not hard, even though the the body cavity runs all the way from head to tail, with ribs all the way. At the front end they are very short, but attached to substantial centerline spines. Cutting in from the top you'll not find any bones to guide you until you're almost to the backbone.
Once down to the backbone I usually just cut the ribs from the backbone with kitchen shears, all the way to the tail. Up at the head 1/3, the ribs are very short, around 3/4 inch, but are attached to very substantial centerline pin bones (which go all the way out to the skin). I pull all these bones with long nose pliers, holding the flesh firmly to keep the bones from tearing it up. By time you have pulled all the pin bones, you'll have pulled all the ribs as well. You may still feel some prickliness along the centerline way out by the skin, but these bits will soften with cooking.
Yield: A fish 18-3/4 inches long and weighing 2 pounds 12-5/8 ounces yielded 1 pound 8-1/4 ounces of skin-on fillet (54%) and 1 pound 6-1/2 ounces skinless (50%). A smaller fish will yield a somewhat lower percentage. In some cases Snakehead is sold factory cleaned, which will give a yield of around 59% skin-on.
Cooking: Poaching, pan frying, roasting, baking, chunks in soups, stews and curries - this fish works very well for all these methods, and offers excellent flavor. It isn't at all oily, so it's probably not very good for grilling or smoking.
Stock: The skins make an excellent light stock with plenty of body and almost no fishy taste, explaining why the skins can sell at a higher price than the fish. Bones should be OK, but I do not recommend using heads and fins as they produce a strong flavored murky tan stock.
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