Squirrel and Japanese knotweed: the chefs cooking with invasive species

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific region, but started infiltrating Atlantic coastal waters in the 1980s. Without natural predators to keep them in check, lionfish pose a serious threat to marine ecosystems beyond their natural range, consuming over 50 species of fish.

The firm, white fish tastes similar to grouper and mahi mahi, or dorado. Olive makes a Peruvian-style lionfish ceviche dish, sprinkled with coriander, fresh ginger and satsuma juice. He also roasts lionfish whole in the oven. “Lionfish are really delicious and hold up to many different cooking applications,” he says.

Olive sources lionfish from local divers and spearfishing tournaments. He warns that people should not prepare lionfish at home as the fish has venomous spines which can cause injury.

Cooking with prolific pests such as lionfish won’t necessarily help eradicate them, however. “We barely put a dent in populations,” he says, adding that his main goal is to help educate people about the dangers of invasives and to feel “really connected with our local food and our environment”.

“It’s a great talking point with our guests,” he says. “Hopefully they go out and help spread the message.”

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Can you cook with other invasives at home? Periwinkles, green crab and feral hog are all safe and easy to prepare in your own kitchen, say Roman and Olive. The difficulty is sourcing these invasives in the first place as there aren’t proper supply chains.

“Sourcing invasives is a real labour of love,” says McMaster who works closely with local foragers. “I don’t encourage people to source invasives themselves unless they are foragers,” he says. People not only run the risk of injury, they could also spread the pest further afield, McMaster says, adding that he is always “triple cautious” when handling Japanese knotweed.

Japanese knotweed can regrow from a single root fragment, weighing just 0.5g (0.02oz), slightly bigger than a pinch of salt. 

“We burn all the excess scraps,” says McMaster. “We’re not taking any risks.”

“You should never move living invasives around,” says Roman. “The worst-case scenario would be introducing the species somewhere else.”

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