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Tempting Fate in a Croatian Fish Market

A couple days ago when in Hvar Town, I decided to wake up early to go to the fish market. The fish market, or ribarnica, is open daily from [god knows when] until 9:30 or 10:00 AM. Last time I was in Hvar, I tried to go to the market around 9:15 AM and all of the fishermen were gone (except one grizzly man selling a tray of sardines). So, I woke up at 7:30 AM this time and headed out to the market square, determined to buy some fresh fish. 

There was only a slight improvement since my previous 9:15 AM attempt. Two vendors were present selling fish. One woman had two piles of silver-scaled fish. I recognized the second vendor as from my first market attempt. Today, he was selling some long, spindly fish with pointed teeth in addition to his sardines. I opted to look closer at the woman vendor’s table. 

One pile of fish was silver with yellow, horizontal stripes. They were each about the size of my hand. The other pile contained slightly smaller fish. These were solid silver with massive, bulging black eyes. I inquired about the former, prettier fish.

“This whitefish. Good, popular local fish. Grill, broil, pan-fry, you can cook however you want. How many you want?”

I bought two, walked halfway back to the rental apartment, and then paused. I’d never purchased an entire fish before, and I had no idea how to cut or cook. Do you cut the fish before or after cooking? What if I hacked away until there was nothing left to consume? Are there YouTube videos on fish gutting? I thought it would be best to factor in a margin of error for this potentially horrible experience. I returned to the woman’s table in the ribarnica and bought a third sacrificial fish. 

A Surprising Revelation

Back at the apartment and armed with my aquatic guinea pig, I thought it might be a good idea to figure out exactly what I was working with. I googled “Croatian fish” to learn more about this mysterious, striped species.

I googled my brains out. There was no mention of a silver fish with yellow stripes in Croatian fish restaurants or market sites. Hmmm. Not a good sign, but I optimistically continued my research. I tried every search term imaginable, from “Adriatic fish” to “common Croatian seafood dishes.” Still nothing.

Finally, I googled “silver fish yellow stripes,” and scrolled through the images. I found one match that looked strikingly similar to what I had bought…but this was labeled “Sarpa Salpa,” a hallucinogenic fish in the Mediterranean Sea. Well that simply wasn’t possible…or was it? Could I really have purchased three hallucinogenic fish?

I went to the fridge and pulled out the bag of fish. I looked back and forth between the google image result and my fish. Same snout, same eyes, same stripes, same fins…unless fish species differentiation is far more complex than I ever imagined, my fridge was currently stocked with hallucinogenic fish.

What the hell. Of all the things that could go wrong at a Croatian fish market, this possibility certainly never occurred to me. I read a Vice article about Sarpa Salpa in Marseille and learned that the fish is considered inedible in Italy and Spain, but occasionally is sold and served in both France and Tunisia. Well, Vice can add one more country to the latter list.

According to the article, locals try to sell the fish to German and English tourists under the generic name “whitefish.” I recalled the lady fish vendor I encountered earlier that day. She certainly knew the right words to convince my ignorant self – “local, whitefish, good, popular, local, local, local.” I also recalled that the lady vendor had heaps of this striped menace. I’m talking a full tray, plus stocked transparent tubs under the table. This unusual surplus should have been a red flag, but I was just so damn excited about my fresh fish.

I kept reading about Sarpa Salpa. One phrase recurred – “purported to be hallucinogenic.” Well, is it or isn’t it? Apparently, Romans ate this fish for festivities and collective drug tripping experiences. If the documentation of these effects dates back to Roman times, then why is all of the information so noncommittal?

The doctors and clinicians in Marseille seem convinced. Tourists come into their clinics after unknowingly consuming the fish in a restaurant, complaining of drowsiness, a sudden inability to drive, or visions of imaginary creatures. These effects can last anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days. That’s some potent fish.

Maybe it’s just me, but I thought it was illegal to drug someone against their will. But then again, if the fish is only “purported to be” hallucinogenic, then I suppose one could make the argument that the vendors and chefs aren’t entirely sure whether or not they’re dishing out platefuls of hallucinogenic fish.

Buh-bye

Well, that was enough evidence for me. I double bagged the fish before dumping them into the nearest trash bin, so that none of Hvar’s stray cats would accidentally trip their tails off. So, if you’re ever in Hvar and think, “hey, perhaps I’ll stroll on over to the fish market,” just don’t. All you’ll find are heaps of hallucinogenic fish, sardines, and weird spindly alien-creatures with pointy teeth.