The Queen Conch in Belize
If you happen to get the chance to eat conch in Belize, odds are high that you are enjoying the Queen Conch that was caught sometime during the conch season. Queen conch, also known as horse conch, mai mula and by its scientific name of Lobatus gigas, has dwindled from a common feature of Belizean cuisine, especially when had in ceviche, and transcended into the realm of delicacy. Queen conch is a large sea snail, hence the “gigas” in its scientific name, that hangs out near the Belize barrier reef, within shallows, sand or seagrass. They are far from sedentary and will travel miles to find food, dragging themselves across seabeds with their “foot.”
While local fishers are well aware of where you can find schools of conch, fishing these creatures is restricted to individuals with commercial licenses. While it is not much of a challenge to catch such a creature, harvesting the meat is where the challenge comes in.
- The fisherman will use another conch’s shell to make a small hole into the caught conch’s shell.
- The hole ruins the vacuum seal and makes it easy to pull out the meat.
- The meat is then cleaned of all brown skin, usually with a fillet knife.
- The “nail” and eyes are either tossed or put toward use as bait or chum.
- Used shells are never tossed back into the area where the conch was captured; absent shells signal that the area is unsafe to other conch. Fishermen instead wait until the end of the day and will unload their entire pile of used shells into a single spot.
Fresh conch meat is fine to eat the moment it leaves the body and has a sweet, tender taste; though the muscle known as the foot requires tenderizing before consumption. While every fisherman and chef you meet will have their own take on preparing conch ceviche, the most common ingredients, beyond the obvious conch meat, are lime, cilantro, onion, tomato and usually habanero peppers. Fritters, soup and steak are other common ways by which conch is served.
While all of this information must surely seem appetizing, it is worth reiterating that conch is seasonal in Belize. Conch season begins October 1 and concludes on June 30, giving these mollusks three solid months of peace in order to strengthen and renew their population numbers after the fishing season.