The slipper lobster: Endangered, but oh-so tasty
It's clumsy, slow, endangered – and delicious. This is the story of the slipper lobster, and the people who would save it from the curse of its own sweet meat.
The aptly titled "Seafoodpedia," a fish and shellfish encyclopedia released this year by the Mul Yam restaurant, displays a huge photo of the Slipper Lobster – the clawless Israeli lobster known only to divers and adventurous gourmands – lying on a grayish fabric, taking up a double page spread. Next to the photo you can find its other names – its Latin name Scyllarides Latus, Hebrew nickname "the sea cricket," and Italian name "Cicala di mare."
A brief description says that the lobster is "an endangered species. Fishing for it is prohibited on Israeli beaches. At winter it can be found at the fish market in Acre. Serving recommendation: split and grilled with a little melted butter."
The inherent absurdity in those brief sentences sum up the story of the slipper lobster. The conflict between the serving recommendation and the awareness that there is a ban on fishing for this endangered species urges cooks with a conscience to make a choice: Surrender to temptation to make delicacies from one of the tastiest creatures to be found along the Israeli coast, or hold the lemon and spare the delicate, pretty beast from extinction.
Star of the show
The chef Eyal Lavi doesn't serve slipper lobster at Rokach 73 and Rokach Yam, his restaurants in Tel Aviv.
"Many chefs are unaware of ecological issues," he says. "Slipper lobsters attract an audience, which is more important for a restaurant than nature preservation."
A few months ago slipper lobsters became the star of the Instagram photography application, as young chefs boasted about the dishes served in their restaurants and regular customers documented their meals, proud that they were chosen to sample this rare dish. This was at start of summer, at the height of the breeding season, when lobsters approach the coasts. Divers caught enough of them to distribute amongst restaurants not usually accustomed to such treats. They took flattering photos of the lobsters, added some funky filters, and got hundreds of "likes" in response.
In their defense, the chefs that serve slipper lobster say they knew it was rare, but were unaware that catching them is prohibited.
Dr. Ruth Yahel, a marine ecologist who is responsible for the Mediterranean sciences division at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, clarifies the ban. "Large crustaceans are protected. Slipper lobsters are unequivocally large crustaceans, and it is illegal to fish for them, whether in a reservation or anywhere else."
How rare are they?
"In Israel you hardly see them in places that aren't closely supervised nature reservations. This species acts like a sort of an indicator of environmental conditions. If you see lots of lobsters in the water, it's clear that it's a preserved area where fishing and hunting is prohibited, because this is the only way that they can survive. Most of the fisherman who say they caught them off the coast of Acre actually caught them at the marine nature reserve in Rosh Hanikra. They took advantage of the inspector's absence."
The species' problem is that they're clumsy and slow, says Yahel. "By the time they manage to move to right or left, they've been hunted."
Though there is no public campaign to protect them, they should have the same celebrity status as sea turtles, Yahel says.
What happens if you go to a restaurant and see slipper lobster on the menu?
"The restaurant is breaking nature protection laws. Our inspectors can fine them or take owners to court. But we are public servants; our salaries don’t allow us to check restaurants frequently."
Conspiracy theory by "pigs"
Idi Israelovich meets me at his restaurant, "Idi," near the entrance to Ashdod. A former fisherman, he is now one of the city's leading restaurateurs, with three fish restaurants. He shows me to a side table, and shows me photos of the slipper lobsters he's served in his restaurant.
"I first encountered it 40 years ago, though Adam and Renee, two famous 'narghile' divers from Nahariya," says Israelovich. Narghile diving is dangerous: you descend using an air hose, with balloons on the boat. They'd catch them by hand and put them in a sack."
Once told the unhappily toothsome crustacean is an endangered species, he vows not to serve it anymore.
"In my opinion they're the best lobsters in the world, beautiful creatures with sweet, heavenly tasting flesh," says Chef Victor Gluger, from the restaurant Chloelys in Ramat Gan. But he stopped cooking them nine years ago, in consideration for their depletion.
Chef Maoz Alonim (Habasta, Café Europa in Tel Aviv) sees no reason to stop serving them.
"I'm aware it's a protected species," Alonim says. "We’re not good for the sea. It's a mess, we're pigs and fishermen do whatever they please. But slipper lobster is local. I'm proud of it, it's a creature that doesn't need to be flown in, and doesn't contribute to climate change."
His theory? The species is not endangered at all. The army's hiding it, at the beaches of Atlit for example, where they don't let fisherman in.
Two customers join our table at Habasta. They drink arak, and talk about the slipper lobster. "It's amazing," says one. "It may look like a crippled lobster, but it's the tastiest local food there is. It beats any steak, beats every fat cow in the world. What's happening in Atlit is a scandal. A military unit is confiscating one of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Maybe the guys in the navy are eating it in a baguette every morning."
Alonim lights up. "We didn’t speak about this before," he promises.
To me, the army conspiracy sounds like an excuse that helps them keep a clean conscience.
It made a human shriek
After a week Alonim calls me with news. "Two beautiful lobsters have arrived," he says. I'm excited, telling him, "I'll arrive right away, Are they still alive?" His response: "Sort of."
When I arrive at the restaurant he says, disappointedly, "The fisherman said he was bringing me lobsters that weigh 700 grams, but that's the weight of both of them together – not one. One of them moves from time to time, responds to touch."
He nudges its stomach. It makes a sluggish, uncomfortable motion. Curious people gather round to watch.
The lobsters are sent to the kitchen, where they lie stunned on their backs. "They look like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland," says Dor Peled, who's preparing the surface upon which sashimi will be cut.
Shai Eliyahu takes a sharp knife and plunges it into the lobster's chest, cutting it in half. The lobster, with the last remaining vestiges of its strength, tries to stop the blow, to grab the knife in its hands, but eventually crumples and surrenders. The sound of breaking armor pierces the silence in the kitchen. "It's an utterly human noise," explains Peled. The chefs chuckle.
The inside of the slipper lobsters is transparent and whitish, like a glistening lychee. When it's open, cloven into two, Eliyahu tells me about its anatomy and then places it on a pan. "We'll wait until the bubbles rise up, and then we'll send it to the oven," he says, sprinkling coarse salt and black pepper over it, before adding two huge chunks of butter. The lobster goes into the oven for eight minutes.
Another lobster lies on its side, destined to be served as sashimi. I touch it, during its final moments on earth. Its armor is cool and it has a peachy texture. A long strip of the armor has a purple gleam, worn out from a lifetime on the rocks. Its legs are folded submissively.
Eliyahu separates the tail meat from its body with a thin knife, before using scissors and then his hands. The body is separated from its white flesh in an instant. The upper part is cast aside.
"What's done with that part now?" I ask the chefs. "Nothing. Sometimes it's placed in the middle of a salad to scare the waitress. Every restaurant I've worked in plays pranks like that," says Peled.
I decided to take it home, so it could be next to me as I wrote, and I could look into its sunken eyes and explain to it that I ate it out of journalistic curiosity rather than malice. I write to myself: "During the last month I became attached to the slipper lobster without even really knowing it. I heard that everyone was lusting after it, but I'd neither smelt nor tasted it, nor touched it or taken it apart. And now, I've finally eaten it."
Alonim breaks the meat from the shell with his fingers with ease. "She's a bit too small, but tasty," he says with his mouth full. He chooses a nice looking piece and pops it in my mouth. The lobster is sticky but soft, well peppered, with an interesting texture.
Alonim takes a small piece with his hands, dips it in olive oil and swallows it down. The waitress places small plates of Thai sauce and soy down on the table. Within a few minutes the white meat on Alonim's half of the shell is gone. He dismantles the sections containing the internal organs: "I like to mix up what spills out and then throw it over the pasta," he says.
He then turns his attention to the other course, and says excitedly, "This sashimi is as sweet as candy."
I close my eyes and devour it. Its texture reminds me of a sweet grapefruit. I try to dig hidden pieces of meat out from the emptying lobster's tail.
Actually it tastes like rubber
A taxi pulls up and out steps Shaul Evron, owner of the Yoezer wine bar in Tel Aviv, and a friend of Alonim. "I came because I was bored. I can see I came at a good time," he says. He eats a little sashimi and declares it to be a delicacy. The plate empties, and Alonim asks the waitresses to bring him the shell, so he can make a final inspection to ensure no meat remains. There's a little left, and so a small portion is salvaged. Evron licks his fingers.
Another fan of the slipper lobster is marine biologist Andrei Aharonov. He is also an underwater photographer, free diving instructor and fisherman, who says fishing for these creatures is a waste of time. "When I was young I fished for slipper lobsters. It's heartbreaking to eat these animals, which aren't even tasty," he says. You're the first person who's told me that, I say. "It's tasty, but it's far from being a delicacy and it's tricky to eat. If you get the cooking time wrong, it becomes rubbery. But it's exotic. People go mad in search for the exotic."
Come the inspector
Lax marine law enforcement and supervision are major factors in the depletion of fish on Israeli shores. It's almost impossible to see a slipper lobster during a normal dive on a beach, but the YouTube videos Aharonov publishes under the username "Avidag" show the relaxing sight of endless amounts of them living quiet lives in the Rosh Hanikra nature reserve.
"At the Rosh Hanikra nature reserve, fishermen know when the inspector is around. During my last dive there, at the height of the season, all the fisherman in Nahariya knew that the inspector had been taken to military reserves and they went nuts."
"Like the police, we can't catch all miscreants," says Eyal Miller, an inspector for the Rosh Hankikra nature reserve.
"Fishing offenses are criminal offenses," he adds. "The fisherman sail at full throttle, covering their faces like terrorists and blurring the license plates of their boats. There were also attempts to run over and physically attack inspectors."
When was the last time you caught a fisherman fishing for slipper lobsters?
"Half a year ago a veteran fisherman entered the reserve and got eight lobsters and a reasonable amount of fish. The event almost descended into violence. That cost him NIS 4,000, about double what he would have made. "
Did you return the lobsters to sea?
"Of course not. They were all dead. He'd shot them with a fishing rifle."