The Delicious and Deadly Stingray. Nyonya. New York, NY. (Partially from the Archives.)
It doesn’t take long nowadays for a high profile death to get controversial and downright nasty. Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, died from a freak stingray attack when the ray’s barb pierced his heart like a dagger. Irwin’s corpse barely onset with rigor mortis and already he’s getting criticism for exploiting wildlife by the likes of Germaine Greer, an Aussie feminist author and all around shit stirrer. In her obitchuary piece on Irwin she concludes, “The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin…”
Although the Crocodile Hunter would disapprove of my unusual choices of food (Irwin was vehemently opposed to the consumption of exotic meats like Australia’s iconic kangaroos and crocodiles), he still did receive his fair share of wrath from animal rights activists due to his intentional provoking of wild and, often, potentially deadly animals. But, Greer’s particularly harsh sentiments in her article (Irwin hasn’t even been dead a week as of this writing) is something that the Crocodile Hunter and this Deep End Diner have in common. It seems all too often people who claim to be defending life, whether it’s that of a baby seal or an unborn human or a plate of lobster sashimi, would cheerfully trade their adversary’s life to achieve this end even if these threats are only manifest through hateful speech, vicious emails or denigrating articles. This not only seems hypocritical but is quite counterproductive. It’s not like Irwin killed any of these animals. Remember, the guy was a conservationist. He just kinda bugged ‘em.
Generally speaking, I’ve received positive feedback from people of all stripes. But there are extreme factions of people who’d like to see me meet my demise in certain ways that they’d find poetically just, for example, having me, the live lobster eater, eaten alive by lobsters. (By the way, this snuff film will not be broadcast on YouTube.) I’ve even received an email from “an animal lover” who was quite offended by one of my meals and asked in her note how I would feel if she “whacked (my) stupid baby over the skull and stunned it, then pulled its legs of(f) and ate them while the thing was still alive?” Alright, that was ugly. How about I meet you in a parking lot and you can try to whack me over the skull and attempt to eat my legs while I’m still alive but don’t touch my baby?! Besides, if she genuinely is concerned of the welfare of all animals and is going to be offended by what people eat and how they eat, she has a bigger fight on her hands than this culinary circus sideshow and may as well start crashing jumbo jets into factory farms and fast food chains.
So the Crocodile Hunter died because he swam too close to a bull ray. It could’ve happened to anyone. His death was not the result of a stingray mob hit ordered by the animal kingdom as Germaine Greer postulates. It was a freak accident.
And when I order a plate of stingray in a Malaysian restaurant it’s because I want to experience a new food not because I’d love to see the stingray population decimated by over fishing. In fact, the way I eat is a nice model for sustainable consumption. I eat a little bit of everything. I don’t exclusively favor tuna or shrimp or seaweed or Snickers. By the time I get back to ordering stingray in a restaurant again I likely will be eating one that is at least a couple of generations beyond the last one I ate.
Also, I don’t request that the stingray be kept alive as I consume it because I find it morbidly entertaining. If it’s a cooked dish, then that’s how I’ll eat it. If not, then so be it.
Steve Irwin was unlucky but he lived a full life and is still appreciated in death. The stingray I enjoyed was also unlucky and it was appreciated in death as well. That’s the cycle of life. Not conspiracy. Not sadism.
THE FOLLOWING POST WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 2004.
Stingray at Nyonya in Chinatown, NYC.
Whenever I order an exotic dish that involves some taboo body part or uncommon culinary creature, I hope it comes to the table resembling said thing as much as possible. (It's the five year-old in me that loves to scare the little girls with a lizard.) Typically, it doesn't arrive looking anything like it used to. The reason may be decorum. I suppose most people don't really want to see what they're eating.
Happily, this was not the case at Nyonya, a fantastic Malaysian eatery in New York's Chinatown. Ecstatic to see stingray on the menu, I immediately ordered it.
You can get stingray prepared a couple of ways at Nyonya. One way is wrapped in lotus leaf layered with sambal (chili sauce). Or the way I had it, simmered in low heat with a lemongrass broth. I would've completely understood if the stingray was served in fillet form considering the size of this sea monster. When it was presented in all its wholeness, sans tail, I was impressed and overwhelmed. It filled up the very large platter. Bring your friends or your local tee-ball team if you want to order the stingray. Moreover, the ray's meat is dense and the flavor, complex. The texture of the meat is a cross between fish and lobster. The meat flakes yet has a significant chew. Adding further flavor to the dish is its skin which is similar to a thick-skinned catfish. Stingray is pleasantly well designed for eating. Its skeletal frame, like a leaf and its veins, is made up of the central spine and a parallel series of long, thick bones that angle down towards the tail. This makes it easy to slide off the ample white flesh. Stingray has a light fish taste and is nicely balanced with the lemongrass.
I tried to eat as much as I could, but, as any of the Willy Wonka kids can tell you, too much of a good thing can get you into tummy trouble.