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Product Spotlight: Kingklip

This tasty and versatile import has yet to win a following outside of ethnic markets

Kingkilp works in a variety of preparations, including stew-type dishes like this curry. - Steve Costi Seafoods
Chris Anderson
January 01, 2005

Kingklip possesses all the attributes that usually make a species a star in the U.S. market. With white, mildly flavored, firm meat, kingklip is a versatile fish that can stand up to grilling and frying as well as being chunked in a fish stew.

Yet the eel-like fish remains a niche product that is sold primarily to a Latin American market familiar with the fish from their home country.

Three varieties of kingklip are found in the waters of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South and Central America. Importers prefer the golden and red kingklip, which tend to be larger fish and yield fillets of between 1 and 4 pounds, with H&G product weighing from 5 to 20 pounds.

A smaller, black-skinned variety has a darker flesh, smaller fillet size and a coarser texture. It is not as popular as golden and red kingklip because of its less appealing meat color and texture, and the small fillets require more vigilance to ensure their freshness from catch to end user.

Jack Leosch, head of seafood sales at Miami-based Gamma Seafood, estimates he sells roughly 1,000 pounds of red or golden kingklip weekly, imported from producers in Costa Rica and Panama. Of that, about 90 percent stays in the south Florida market.

“It is going primarily to the Latin market, because they know the fish very well,” says Loesch. “When people think of Miami, they think it is mostly Cubans, but we’ve had a huge influx from Peru, Ecuador, all the countries of South and Central America, and that is a good market for kingklip.”

Save On Seafood’s two retail locations tell the ethnic story in a nutshell. The wholesaler/retailer’s St. Petersburg store does very little kingklip volume at all, but its location in Tampa, which has a large Latino -population, has carried the fish for all 11 years since the store opened.

“We don’t sell that much of it compared to other fish, since not everyone is familiar with king-klip,” says Tampa store Manager Lidia Vlahakis. “But our [Latin] customers do buy it regularly.”

Buyers of kingklip say it is similar to grouper, and demand for it often jumps when grouper are in short supply, as happened in late 2004 when the domestic grouper fishery was closed.

“We will bring kingklip in when grouper gets tight and the price for grouper starts to go up,” says Rob­ert Pidgeon, director of purchasing at Inland Seafood in Atlanta.

While the supply and price of kingklip have remained relatively steady in recent years, buyers say the price this year went up significantly due to a double whammy of reduced supply due to the cyclical nature of the fishery and an increased demand as a replacement product for grouper.

“When I went in and set the price for this last batch, it was already about $6.99 for skinless fillets, about the same price I paid for it when grouper was closed in February,” Pidgeon says of a purchase he made in November.

And while that price may not be a deterrent to buyers at retail or foodservice who are looking for a cheaper substitute for grouper which sells for $3 to $4 per pound more, a higher price can affect sales to the year-round ethnic market, Loesch notes.

“Last year I was selling kingklip at $3.25 a pound, but the supply this year has been less than the past few years, and right now I’m at $4.25 a pound [for H&G],” says Loesch.

“That’s a pretty big increase.”

David Barron, seafood manager with Sysco Food Service in Medley, Fla., says he has a small number of restaurants in the south Florida market that regularly buy kingklip, but the recent price increase has resulted in slower sales.

“They are used to buying the fish for $2 or $3,” Barron says. “When you get used to that price, it is hard to pay more, so they are moving to other fish to bring in instead.”

One customer who won’t balk at paying extra for kingklip is Derek Anthony, chef and owner of the restaurant 10 Degrees South in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta.

“Kingklip is one of the most popular and tasty fishes in South Africa,” Anthony says. “Since we are a South African theme restaurant, we had to include it on the menu.”

While Anthony admits his restaurant is a relatively small island of kingklip consumption, he has only had one supply glitch during his six years in business.

“I was the only person my supplier was sourcing it for, but once I committed to buying a minimum each week, it hasn’t been a problem,” he says.

These days that translates to about 60 pounds of kingklip weekly for the 150-seat restaurant, where it is one of the more popular items on the menu.

For $20, customers get grilled kingklip with a choice of three different sauces: lemon-butter, piri piri pepper or lemon garlic.

“We don’t want to put a heavy sauce on kingklip, because it has a pleasant, mild flavor that we don’t want to cover up,” explains Anthony.

He would recommend kingklip to other chefs simply because of its versatility.

“You can really prepare it almost any way you want,” he says. “You can poach it, braise it and in South Africa it’s used for fish and chips, so it holds up well fried, too.”

Nonetheless, Pidgeon thinks kingklip will continue as just a niche fish unless an influential chef embraces it.

“All it takes is someone like Emeril Lagasse or Alton Brown or for Oceanaire in Washington or McCormick & Schmick's to start carrying it. That's what it would take to become more popualr," he says.

Until then, kingklip will remain one of the best-tasting fish most people have never heard of.

January 2005 - SeaFood Business

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