Fishing Lines: The piranha eyes have it

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NEWS that Japanese mothers are cooking fish eyes because they believe the 'brain food' will help their children through exams brought back some uncomfortable memories. It took me back to an expedition into the Ecuador rain forest, five days' canoeing from the nearest road, and a very special meal of beef and piranha vindaloo.

The unusual dish certainly came as a surprise to our guides when we offered to cook supper. But we couldn't face their severely limited repertoire (there are only so many things you can do with chicken, banana and rice) for another day. So we resorted to emergency rations.

We had hoped to supplement our limited supplies with fresh fish, but with the River Tiputini washing through the treetops, the only things we could catch were piranha.

Almost everything you have heard about piranha is true. They are savage, with vampire teeth so strong that they would bite through anything but forged hooks. What travel books don't tell you is that they taste like tree bark mixed with Novocaine. We were delighted when we caught the first few: they were, after all, hefty chunks of protein weighing 2 lb or more. Eating them was another matter. They have as many bones as a herring but whereas a herring's are soft, the piranha's stay sharp and spiky, however long you cook them. Even the natives wouldn't eat them.

As the catering pack of vindaloo bubbled away, we decided to spice it up a little with a bottle of hot chilli sauce. And as a little jape, we cut up portions from three piranha, threw them in a separate pot and mixed the chunks with the curry sauce so the natives wouldn't spot the difference until too late.

We served it all with a flourish, telling Fernando and his uncle that it was a classic English dish. For our stomachs, seasoned to the fiery food by late-night drinking sessions, it was merely a very hot curry. For them, it was like eating hot coals. At the time, it seemed hugely funny as they gulped down gallons of water and swore revenge on us, especially the next morning after they had painfully performed their ablutions.

That night, we went to our hammocks and dreamt that perhaps tomorrow would be the day when we would catch the legendary arapaima, arguably the biggest freshwater fish in the world, and our reason for travelling almost to the Peruvian border. Locally called pirarucu, it is said to grow over 1,000 lb and is so valuable to the natives (one arapaima equals about four months' wages) that it has been hunted almost to extinction and is now found only in the most inhospitable and inaccessible parts of Ecuador.

But this was not to be our lucky day either. Although we were fishing an idyllic lagoon where no westerner had travelled before, watching giant morpho butterflies, macaws and howler monkeys, all that would take our baits were those damn piranhas. Still, they were bait for the next day, so we took them back to the campsite.

That evening the guides had made a special effort. They had travelled into the jungle, they said, to find a local speciality. Among the chicken and rice, covered in a banana sauce, were round, blackish vegetables. They were very chewy, and had a strange, unidentifiable taste. None of us was sure that we really liked it, but at least they were something different. As we discussed what the plant was like, Fernando could contain himself no longer. He rolled around, holding his stomach, tears streaming from his cheeks.

It took about 15 minutes before we could get him to explain what was so funny. When he did, even my schoolboy Spanish got the message. The mysterious vegetable had been piranha and chicken eyeballs.

But perhaps I should change my perception of piranha. Apparently, the Japanese are now buying vacuum-packed eyeballs and fish stomachs. Tuna eyes, the size of hamburgers, are particularly popular and cost about pounds 2.50 for three. And it's not just children who are finding their food glaring back at them: old people are eating eyes in the belief that they will prevent senility.

It all started when newspapers reported that the bits normally thrown away were rich in unsaturated fatty acids, whose consumption is said to lead to cerebral health. The Daily Telegraph quotes a Tokyo fishmonger as saying: 'Most of the people who buy this are middle-aged or older, who want to prevent themselves going gaga.'

For me, those piranha eyeballs may have come too late.