What is a black scabbard fish and how do you cook it?

Black scabbard, or black scabbardfish, is a popular meal on the island of Madeira. But how does it taste? (Photo: Getty Creative)

Seafood is polarizing enough when it comes to the palate preferences of most Americans, but even the most enthusiastic of fish lovers may dismiss the atrocity that is Madeira’s black scabbard.

The Portuguese island is renowned for its diverse array of ocean delicacies like lapas (limpets with only one shell) and octopus, but ugly scabbardfish stands out at a fisherman’s market like a sore thumb — or rather a long, black thumb with jagged teeth, eel -like eyes and a sheeny exterior that looks straight from an oil slick.

I’m not saying my animals have to be adorable before I consume them: Choosing beef, pork or lamb for dinner based on it’s cuteness is actually quite morbid. But one look at a black scabbard will have you thinking twice before noshing on it. In fact, you may even convince yourself that it’s going to eat you first.

Monster of the sea?

Of course, this nightmare is impossible. Because the black scabbard lurks at depths of up to 1,700 meters, the pressure of the water actually kills them as they’re brought to the surface. Whether or not this practice is humane is to be determined, but black scabbards quite literally don’t live to see the light of day.

And still, locals go to great lengths to preserve the tradition of this celebrated ingredient. According to Sílvio de Freitas, owner and executive chef of Peixaria no Mercado, the scale-less ribboned fish is actually so critical to Madeira’s fishing industry that it accounts for nearly 50% of its exports from the sea. Needless to say, Ursula is none too pleased: She likely considers them her friends, or her “poor little poopsies,” if you will.

Big fish to fry

Never one to turn down the opportunity to immerse myself in the food of other cultures, I overcame my initial reluctance to try black scabbard and went all in.

Traditionally, the fish is served fried with local bananas and is one of Madeira’s most popular dishes.

“Its origin dates back to the ’80s when the need arose to combine this abundant fish in Madeiran waters with the abundant exotic fruit,” explains de Freitas. “The fillets themselves are seasoned with salt, garlic and lemon juice. They are then rubbed in beaten egg and flour and fried in olive oil until golden brown.”

Locals have also come up with creative iterations like adding a passion fruit sauce that’s become increasingly popular in Funchal (the island’s bustling capital), especially among tourists.

good taste

This is precisely the preparation that called my name, as I am passionate … about passion fruit. After sampling the dish on multiple occasions, I can, indeed, confirm that the island’s most iconic dish is downright delicious. Its texture and taste is most similar to haddock: lean white flesh with little oil, but a subtle sweetness and absolutely zero indication of any fishiness. I also appreciated how the filet’s simple flavors allowed local produce, like the aforementioned passion fruit, to really shine.

While black scabbardfish is essentially non-existent in the US, its shinier sister, the silver scabbardfish, sometimes pops up and can be found in specialty seafood stores. (Or just use haddock.) That said, you can pay homage to the famous meal by using Madeira-inspired ingredients to capture the flavor profile. De Freitas has even provided his own recipe below.

If there was ever an example of why not to judge a book by its cover, black scabbard is it. Just be sure to add parsley … and avoid any internet searches right before you chow down.

Black Scabbardfish with Fried Bananas

Courtesy of Peixaria no Mercado

The black scabbard, as prepared by Madeira restaurant Peixaria no Mercado.  (Photo: Soren Lauridsen/Peixaria no Mercado)

The black scabbard, as prepared by Madeira restaurant Peixaria no Mercado. (Photo: Soren Lauridsen/Peixaria no Mercado)

Ingredients:

  • 4 black scabbard fish fillets

  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly-squeezed

  • salt and pepper

  • 1 clove garlic, minced

  • 1 cup flour

  • 1 egg, beaten

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil (or more, if needed)

  • 2 Madeira bananas (or plantains)

  • 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Instructions:

  1. Season the fillets with lemon juice, salt, pepper and minced garlic. Let them rest in the fridge for a few hours.

  2. In a container or bowl, place the flour. In another container or bowl, place the beaten egg.

  3. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.

  4. Drain the fillets from the marinade and dredge them in the flour and then in the beaten egg. Place them in the frying pan and fry them in hot oil until they gain a golden color. Drain the nets on absorbent paper.

  5. Peel the bananas and cut them in half lengthwise. Pass them through the flour and egg bowls and quickly fry them in oil until they gain a golden color. Let them also drain on absorbent paper.

  6. Place the fillets on a serving platter or plate. Set a piece of banana on top of each fillet. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with boiled potatoes. You can also make a homemade passion fruit sauce to drizzle on top.

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