Grouper bg

Epinephelus, Mycteroperca

To borrow the sermonizing old dictum about children being seen and not heard, groupers (Epinephelinae) should perhaps be eaten and not seen. Looming around the world’s rocky and coral reefs, their bodies are misshapen lumps. The head is indistinct. Out of lateral bulges, cold eyes stare out. So wide are the jaws that they might be the animal’s whole raison d’être. A grouper’s mouth is like a cauldron: with its triple row of spear-like teeth, it could stand in for the gates of hell. More dental plates line the pharynx. As groupers tend to swallow their prey whole, they like to ensure it gets nicely crushed on its way down.

To complete the tableau, we must mention size. This tends to vary across the 160 or so grouper species – as do the colours, which range from brightest red to dullest grey, via every manner of stripe and speckle. But groupers are rarely less than chunky fish. The Atlantic goliath (Epinephelus itajara) can grow to 2.5 metres. The black grouper (Mycteroperca bonaci), whose habitat extends from the Caribbean to southern Brazil, rocks up in second place, with 2.3 metres. The giant – or “Queensland” – grouper of the Indo-Pacific (Epinephelus lanceolatus) comes in at 1.8 metres. And so it goes, down to species that we might more readily imagine handling in the kitchen.

Behaviour-wise, groupers are protogynous hermaphrodites: they start out as females and, over the course of their lives, change to male. This process remains a little mysterious. But we know it tends to be socially mediated, in that a female will transition to male when males are underrepresented within a certain area. This, one might argue, sets new standards for the pursuit of gender parity. Then again, a male grouper will have a harem of females at his disposal – so perhaps it’s to do with patriarchal self-interest after all.

If groupers fail the “cute animal” test by a sea mile, they do – true to nature’s occasionally perverse compensation games – make up for it in taste. Their flesh is sweet, low in fat and thalassic in a genteel kind of way, all with a moist, flaky texture. Or could it be that groupers’ unsightliness evolved as a protective feature, a decoy for their succulence? If so, it didn’t work – at least, not with humans. Many grouper species are overfished. The goliath is critically endangered: at the time of writing, it was still protected in the United States of America and the Caribbean by moratoriums brought in 30 years ago.

your fish

Method aside, the answer as to whether your grouper is sustainably fished will lie at the intersection of species and zone. Black grouper from the Gulf of Mexico or south Atlantic, for example, would be a safe choice. By contrast, the Warsaw grouper (Hyporthodus nigritus) from much the same waters would be near-threatened, and therefore a more fraught option. Selling the goliath in US or Caribbean markets would be, for now at least, downright illegal. One ambitious 2020 study led by the Marine Science Institute at the University of Texas, which set out to reassess all grouper species around the world, concluded that over a quarter of these were threatened in the wild. Grouper, that said, is successfully – and often sustainably – cultured, mostly in East Asia and Southeast Asia. Production tends to be seasonal, as demand shoots up around Lunar New Year. Farming grouper, however, is a delicate job. Big and ungainly as they may be, groupers are sensitive animals: a high susceptibility to stress increases hatchlings’ vulnerability to disease. In addition to imposing strict hygienic measures, the more advanced hatcheries have been experimenting with tank shape and colours to reduce stress levels. When buying grouper, look for flesh that is firm, springy and moist (as well as the usual absence of odour). If you’re getting fillets, the pieces should be creamy white to soft pink, with no browning or discoloration around the edges. Our grouper recipes come from either side of the Atlantic, in the Caribbean and West Africa: both have instant recognition in their respective countries, and a high lip-smacking index.

Grouper, MIXED SPECIES, raw per 100 grams
IRON (Fe) (Mg)
ZINC (Zn) (Mg)
VITAMIN B12 (μg)
EPA (g)
DHA (g)

The interview Grouper

I hope you don’t mind doing this interview remotely. I’ve never spoken to a goliath grouper before and I have to be honest: meeting you face to face makes me a little uncomfortable. Those teeth…

I frankly doubt that I’ve been more of a threat to you over the years than vice versa. But I suppose meeting online is now routine for all of us, so I’m willing to overlook the offence.

Well, you wouldn’t fit through my front door in any case. But let’s move on. Your name in English – grouper – doesn’t seem appropriate. You’re not comfortable in groups: from what I know, you’re a largely solitary fish.

You’re guilty of what’s known as folk etymology. My name in English has nothing to do with “group”. It comes from the Portuguese garoupa, which itself is thought to be a corruption of an original South American word. Read up before you interview guests: it’s basic courtesy.

I stand corrected. But I also find you a little aggressive.

As long as you’re not a crustacean, or an octopus, or even a small shark, you’re fine.

There was one incident in the Florida Keys in the 1950s…

I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t born yet and I would advise you not to extrapolate.

All right. I fear we’ve started off on the wrong foot (not that you have any), so thank you for your time. I have another call booked anyway.

I would normally roll my eyes at this further incivility – but they’re so small you wouldn’t notice. Goodbye.