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Making the case for monkfish (Photography by David Benthal)

Don’t google the fish. That’s what chef Ryan Barth-Dwyer playfully advises customers who are curious about the Monkfish tikka masala on the menu at Little Fish in Southold. 

“You might not want to eat it afterward,” joked Barth-Dwyer. “It’s not a very pretty fish.” 

Indeed, a quick Google image search will show that the monkfish is no poster child for marine beauty. Resembling a monstrous creature conjured from a dark fairy tale, the slimy bottom-feeder has a large gaping mouth lined with sharp teeth that could cause anyone a fright. 

Beneath its less-than-appealing exterior, however, is a healthy, sustainable and tasty meal for those willing to give it a try. Across the North Fork, restaurants like Little Fish, as well as organizations like Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program, are changing the narrative around these lesser-known local fish, advocating for them to get a chance in the spotlight. 

“We really are trying to encourage people to branch out and try something new,” said CCE fisheries specialist Kristin Gerbino. “Through our research that we do with the commercial and recreational fishing industry, we realize what they really need is Long Island consumers to be made aware of all the options that they have as far as local seafood goes.”

Monkfish, also known as goosefish, are bottom dwellers that thrive in the deep waters of the North Atlantic, from the shores of Maine and the East End of Long Island to North Carolina. Dubbed “the poor man’s lobster,” they boast a firm, sweet-flavored meat that closely resembles the taste and texture of lobster — without the hefty price tag. 

I’ve seen monkfish now on quite a few menus. It’s a much more affordable fish, and it’s a great alternative for white tender meat, which is what people want to see.

Ryan Barth-Dwyer, chef at Little Fish

“It’s covered in this slimy membrane, almost like a silver skin around it, that you have to peel back and clean…but once you do, you get this super nice white meat,” explained Barth-Dwyer. “It doesn’t flake out like other fish. It’s got a really good body and the taste is very mild.”

For generations, monkfish has held a special place in European cuisine, often finding its way onto plates in the form of filets cut from its tail and cheeks. In Japan, the liver is regarded as a prized delicacy. 

Monkfish is a bottom-feeder found in the deep waters of the North Atlantic with a large gaping mouth lined with sharp teeth. (Photography by David Benthal)

In the United States, however, monkfish has historically been considered bycatch, unintentionally captured and tossed overboard as trash. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when catches of other popular fish varieties like cod and halibut were declining, that monkfish started to be seen as a gourmet option in U.S. markets. 

According to CCE, there has been a decrease in the demand for monkfish both locally and internationally over the last couple of years — a trend that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The foreign markets were collapsing, and the prices were being reduced to the point where it was not profitable anymore,” explained CCE fisheries department manager Tara McClintock. 

Today, because many fishermen aren’t getting the prices they need to sustain monkfish fishing, many have decreased fishing efforts. Consequently, less monkfish is available, making dealers and retailers hesitant to rely on it. 

“In order to get the fisheries back, there needs to be an increase in demand so that retailers and dealers feel confident in stocking it,” explained CCE fisheries specialist Amanda Dauman. 

In an effort to support local fishermen and the industry, CCE is leading a campaign to increase demand for monkfish across the Northeast. Since September 2022, CCE’s fisheries specialists have been surveying fishermen, consumers, dealers, retailers and chefs to gain a better understanding of current industry trends and devise a successful marketing plan. 

Through this initiative, funded by the annual federal Saltonstall-Kennedy grant program, they hope to raise public awareness about the qualities and potential uses of monkfish. 

“U.S. seafood eaters are just not as familiar with monkfish as they are with salmon,” said McClintock. 

“We found that going to festivals, where people are already coming with the idea that they’re going to taste stuff and sample things, is a great way to get them to also sample fish,” explained Dauman. “A lot of people, if they knew about monkfish, they loved it. And if they didn’t know anything about monkfish, they were excited to try it, which is something that we haven’t heard from the industry.” 

The campaign has also worked to include monkfish in other CCE projects, like the “Cook a Fish, Give a Fish” program. Led by expert chefs and Cornell professionals, the program taught people about the benefits of local seafood and how to cook lesser-known fish like monkfish at home. While that particular program has ended, its cooking demonstrations can be found online at 

“We’re trying to use the fish that might be caught as bycatch and can be thrown back,” explained Gerbino. “They’re super plentiful and super sustainable.” 

In one of these demonstrations, chef Barth-Dwyer taught viewers via Zoom how to make one of his monkfish tikka masala — a staple dish at Little Fish, which is known for innovative coastal cuisine. 

Chef Ryan Barth-Dwyer walked us through how to clean and prepare monkfish. (Photography by David Benthal)

“We’re in a unique position here, where we are a new restaurant, so we can kind of push that envelope a little bit…we’re taking classic dishes and putting our own unique seafood twist on it,” he said. “It’s a huge part of our ethos here — really tapping into the local resources that we have.” 

Barth-Dwyer skillfully prepares the monkfish, cutting around the spine similar to how one would with a pufferfish. “Ideally, if you get it from the market, you can have your local fishmonger clean it up for you,” he explained. After letting the neatly cut filets marinate overnight in a variety of spices, he cooks them, transforming what was once a ghastly sea monster into an appetizing, flavorful dish. 

“I’ve seen monkfish now on quite a few menus,” said Barth-Dwyer. “It’s a much more affordable fish, and it’s a great alternative for white tender meat, which is what people want to see.”

At Anker in Greenport, executive chef Diego Garcia has also been finding ways to use monkfish creatively. Currently, he uses it as a nod to his Mexican heritage, preparing it as a juicy tableside al pastor. 

“Monkfish, to me, is very special because we can use it in so many different ways,” explained Garcia. “It’s not fishy at all. I call it ‘chicken of the sea.’ ” 

Committed to making the most of what the local waters provide, Anker doesn’t shy away from using fish that restaurants usually overlook. The American seafood restaurant’s menu features a variety of underutilized fish, from porgy sausage to sand shark bites. Because these lesser-known fish are plentiful, incorporating them into restaurant menus can ease the demand placed on more widely sought-after fish.

“Monkfish has always been undermined,” said Garcia. “It’s an ugly fish, so a lot of people are scared of it. I think that it’s a really sustainable fish and it should really be put out there more and be utilized as much as other fish like swordfish or bluefin tuna.” 

You can find monkfish tikka masala on the menu year-round at Little Fish. (Photography by David Benthal)

“We’re overfishing these common fish for lack of a better term,” added Barth-Dwyer. “I think it’s just because people haven’t experimented much in the kitchen with alternatives, because they have been able to get away with selling the classics.” 

Jermaine Owens, a fisherman and owner of North Fork Seafood LLC, has long been dedicated to highlighting the value of these underappreciated fish. Beyond supplying fish to commercial clients and sustainability-focused seafood restaurants like Minnow at the Galley Ho, he also sets up stalls at markets throughout the East End, where he offers lesser-known varieties such as sea robin, monkfish, skate and dogfish. Working on boats his whole life, he says he’s witnessed firsthand the waste around fish like sea robins, which were often thrown overboard. 

Thoughts on eating monkfish? Share them on Cornell Cooperative Extension’s monkfish consumer survey. Scan the QR code or click here.

“I grew up in the ’80s and I had my first job on a boat when I was 8 or 9 years old. People would be catching these things, throwing these things on the floor, stomping their heads,” Owens said. “I’d take it, filet it up, throw it in a Styrofoam cup with a little bit of water, butter, salt and pepper. Throw it in the microwave for 30 seconds and you got one of the healthiest meals that you can eat.” 

At the markets, Owens educates wary customers, often offering them samples of the fish. 

“When people don’t have to pay for something they’re more in tune to trying it and that’s changed a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “I think just by educating them about it and making it presentable, I’ve had no problems with selling it.” 

“It’s a very versatile fish as far as preparation goes,” added McClintock. “That’s why we’re looking to see it on more menus, and we’re happy to see it on menus that are already serving it.” 

“I think it’s slowly making its way onto the map. It’s just gonna take a minute,” added Owens.