Cou Cou and Flying Fish - Gastro Obscura
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Cou Cou and Flying Fish

When half of Barbados’s national dish migrated across maritime borders, drama ensued.

Since 2004, Barbados, the self-proclaimed “Land of the Flying Fish,” has been at loggerheads with Trinidad and Tobago over maritime boundaries. Tensions arose regarding fishermen’s rights to catch the species that makes up half of Barbados’s national dish: cou cou and flying fish. The four-winged flying fish, which is featured on Barbados’s coins, stamps, menus, and tourism logos, has migrated 125 miles south. They now reside in waters legally belonging to Tobago.

Bajan fishermen pursued the creatures, which remain in-demand, despite being geographically out of bounds, into Tobagonian territory. But then, two ship captains were arrested, catches were seized, and a diplomatic spat ensued. The countries took their argument to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, who ruled in 2006 by dividing the waters and telling both countries to preserve fish stocks for the future. In the meantime, Bajans maintained their supply by begrudgingly buying flying fish off Tobago’s fleet.

The Bajan dish at the center of the controversy features steamed flying fish paired with a firm-cooked cornmeal-and-okra cake called cou cou. Bajans invented the “cou cou stick,” a specific, smooth, oblong wooden spoon, just to manipulate the mixture into ideal form and consistency. Cooks top off the finished plate with an herbed, buttery sauce of tomatoes, onion, and lime juice. Restaurants across the island continue to serve the traditional meal, which has become increasingly costly as local flying fish populations dwindled away. Fear not, the whimsical critters aren’t endangered, they’ve just moved south.

Need to Know

Flying fish are so-called because they actually use their tail fins to gain speed, leap, and glide along the ocean's surface on their long pectoral fins for up to 655 feet.

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