To eat a tiger

It was a slow day on the river. And it was hot. Very hot and sticky. There was not much to do but play with the camera lens I borrowed and looking at the riverbank for photo opportunities.

Fishermen - Okavango River

With only the dull droning of the outboard engine for company, I had trouble staying awake. Once, only for a minute or two, I thought we had acquired a second engine. I guess our skipper must have dozed off too.

Then out of the blue, the tranquility exploded with a loud nervous bellow.

The cry sounded as if it came from a teenage boy with an expanding larynx – all cracked and dry and randomly jumping from one tonal range to the next.

And yet it came from a throat that has seen more than 30 summers and winters.

Abruptly, the sound of our second engine stopped. The noise must have woken our skipper. 

Skipper JJ

Pandemonium reigned as fellow passengers jumped to their feet. The boat rocked sharply to the one side as everyone shouted advice they thought best suited to the situation. Never mind that no-one had ever been in this situation.

“Keep it down!” one insisted. “Kap hom hard!” another proposed with excessive determination. And promptly provided a forceful demonstration with bent back and swinging arms.

The boat rocked sharply in that direction. A few forceful exclamations flew in her direction.

“Come this way. No not you …. You!”. “Kap jy net”. More swinging arms and pointed fingers.

Until now I had no clear view of the action. The two hairy legs in front of me shivered like unsaved lampposts in a Bolivian earthquake. Arms pumping with the uneven rhythm of an ancient sewing machine. Neck veins expanding to the point of rapture.

I panicked. I felt exposed and at risk. Any more effort could trigger a set of explosions and I need to get out of the line of fire.

By the time I managed to shift position, the threat disappeared. The bedlam stopped. Our friend had just landed his first tiger fish!

Fisherman Koen

Unlike our friend, the tiger fish did not make it. All attempts to resuscitate and release it went belly up. Literally.

I grew up with a great distrust of fresh water fish. I was told it tastes like mud. Yah right. As if saltwater fish tastes like salt.

Local people along the river dry the tiger fish fillets and then pound it to a fine powder bones and all. This is then added to their staple of maize or mahangu as a protein supplement.

Cooking tiger fish presents only one problem. It is extremely bony. Long, sharp Y-shaped bones line the entire length of the fish. So, you have to debone it, unless you invite only enemies for dinner.

To make the deboning easier, leave the skin on, and cut the fillets into smaller strips about 5 cm wide. Cut diagonally across the fillet. This means that you’ll cut through the bones and make them shorter.

Tiger fish

Using a pair of sharp-nosed pliers, feel your way across the strips with your fingertips, and pull out all the bones, as you would when deboning a salmon. This takes some effort, but the flesh is firm and can take quite a bit of strain provided it remains on the skin. Remove all bones, but also warn your guests: eat with great awareness.

The flesh is white and flaky, unlike saltwater game fish such as snoek or barracuda which have much denser textures. Much more like kabeljou or cod. Thus, ideal to deep fry with a good, light and crispy batter.

Not the thin, yellow, flour-and-egg, soggy mess you find at your local Portuguese corner shop.

No, it’s gotta be light and crispy and with that shiny, light brown, deep-fired colour. And make it with beer for extra flavour. Double fry your French fries, no-one likes them soggy and limp.

Serve with a light thunderstorm and cool breeze that carries the earthy smells and familiar sounds of the Okavango river. Drink a toast to the mighty tiger and don’t forget a good squirt of laughter. 

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