Gearing up to grab some conch.
If The Bahamas had a national mollusk (honestly, I’m really surprised they don’t) it would be the queen conch, the most ubiquitous creature on the islands. You cannot escape the conch. Conch shells litter the streets, and are a staple in Bahamian decor (along with all other dead sea creatures, says crab on top of my television.) On national television, they have timed conch cleaning contests. It’s in the country’s coat of arms, for Pete’s sake, resting nobly amidst palm fronds.
Conch also has a starring role in Bahamian cuisine. Cracked conch, conch stew, conch fritters, conch chowder, curry conch, conch salad…I could go on.
Trying to find conch. I should probably be looking downwards.
I’ve been conching, a.k.a conch hunting, a couple of times. Conching is the only hunting I’ve ever done, and slow-moving, defenseless mollusks seemed within my skill level.
The fearsome claw.
Though mostly defenseless, conch do have a single claw to drag themselves across the ocean floor, and presumably defend themselves. One of my companions gave me a claw as a keepsake. I guess he thought I might make a necklace out of it or mount it on my wall as an extremely pathetic hunting trophy. My boyfriend’s mom and brother offered to help me clean the claw, which still had some meat on it that I was trying to pry off. They were professionals, and ate the remaining conch meat off the claw like some kind of sea drumstick. This brings me to one of my favorite qualities of Bahamians: their passion for eating anything that comes out of the sea. They seem to be under the impression that God has given them a sacred quest to eat the entire ocean. If it has meat (even a half inch of it) and lives in or by the ocean, an old school Bahamian will eat it. Hermit crabs, curbs, various slimy things, lion fish, snails…nothing is safe.
I ended up being boat support, grabbing the conch from the divers.
The process of conching is pretty simple. First, we drove the boat to a good conching spot. Then anyone who wanted to go ahuntin’ pulled on their flippers and masks, and jumped overboard. It’s good to have a couple people remain on the boat, to steer, keep an eye on all the divers to ensure that they won’t be run over by a boat, and reach over the side to collect the conch the divers get. I went overboard in the vain hope that I might be able to contribute by getting a conch or two. I quickly discovered that diving down 27 feet for mollusks did not appeal to me. So I just paddled around in the ocean, looking at the pretty fishies. I know. Worst hunter ever.
We got a good amount of conch. However, there are limits on what kind of conch you can get. Conch in The Bahamas are becoming scarce, which is what happens when a species becomes a national dish. Bahamian school children have it drummed into their heads to only catch conch that have a fully developed lip in their shell. It takes conch 5 years in order to reproduce and develop the lip, and they can live up to 50 years.
Hammering a hole into the conch.
I’m sure everyone is dying to know how you turn a giant shelled mollusk into a viable food source. Traditionally, the menfolk clean the conch, while the women cook it. They start with a hammer, to make a hole in the shell big enough to get a knife through. The knife is then used to separate the conch from the inside of the shell where it’s attached. Then, they yank the loosened conch out of the shell.
Skinning the conch.
Once the conch is out, the men skin it. This consists of separating the meat from the guts, and shaving off all parts of the conch that aren’t white meat.
What you don’t want. Great bait though.
What you do want.
Once the conch meat was ready, the ladies on the boat made conch salad with it (yes, I helped.) There are many ways to prepare conch, but conch salad might be the national favorite, and is the dish I recommend if you visit The Bahamas. Here’s the recipe as I remember it:
15 conch, meat diced
15 limes (juice)
black pepper, salt, cayenne pepper to taste.
The final product, conch salad.