Asian carp have clean taste, bad image

SPRINGFIELD — Almost nobody in Illinois wants to eat Asian carp.

“There’s no market for them. I’ve had one or two people ask for them,” said Clint Carter, co-owner of Carter’s Fish Market, 1900 South Grand Ave. E.

That’s too bad because the few people brave enough to taste the pearly white flesh - punctuated by many bones -- say it tastes like cod or tilapia.

“It’s a freshwater fish with a clean taste,” Carter said. “People are always surprised when they taste it.”

Part of the Asian carp’s poor image stems from its name. It’s often confused with the common carp, a bottom feeder with a flavor sometimes referred to as “muddy.”

The Asian carp, in fact, is a clean fish that feeds on plankton and algae in the upper water of rivers. It’s rich in protein and low in mercury because it doesn’t eat other fish.

The tender flesh lacks a “fishy” taste, so it easily absorbs the flavors of sauces, spices and herbs cooked with it.

“This fish is so good, I’d take it over tilapia,” said chef Philippe Parola of Baton Rouge, La., who has conducted Asian carp cooking demonstrations in Illinois in conjunction with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ “Target Hunger Now!” program. The initiative encourages hunters and anglers to donate deer and Asian carp to food banks in Illinois.

To prevent confusion over the name and to elevate the Asian carp’s image, Parola calls the fish “silverfin.” It’s also been dubbed “Kentucky tuna.”

Whatever it’s called, Asian carp suffers from another problem: bones. The meat is full of them and the bigger the fish, the bigger the bones.

“When the fish is cooked, it’s easy to remove the bones,” Parola said. “There’s no secret. Filet the fish, cook it, take out the bones. One fish can feed an entire family.”

An average Asian carp is 15 to 30 pounds, but the fish can grow to 50 pounds or more.

Clint Carter prefers to cut out the rib bones and some of the pin bones before cooking. Sometimes he butchers the fish into 5-ounce filets; sometimes he uses his filet knife to slice the boneless parts of the fish into strips.

Another way deal with the bones is to score the flesh, he said, which cuts the bones into smaller pieces, helping to minimize them.

Perhaps the easiest way to prep Asian carp is to put the flesh through a meat grinder several times. Any bones in the ground fish soften when cooked, so they are indiscernible to the diner. The ground fish can be formed into patties for fish burgers, or added to other dishes.

“If someone knew how to make them boneless, they’d be a millionaire,” Carter said.

Asian carp can be cooked like any other fish.

“Baking is absolutely the best way to do it,” Parola said. “I like to bake it with a little acid, like lemon juice, and butter. You have the best piece of fish ever.”

Carter has experimented with lots of cooking methods.

“I’ve tried every way. I bread it and fry it. I grill it. I bake it. I mince it and make patties,” he said.

Although carp can be eaten year-round, the flavor improves when the fish is caught in colder water in the fall and winter.

Asian carp, an invasive species in the U.S., is threatening the ecology of the Great Lakes as well as Illinois’ fishing industry. In the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, commercial fishermen trying to harvest catfish and buffalo fish regularly find their nets filled with tons of carp.

The most common types of Asian carp in the U.S. are grass, black, bighead and silver.

The silver variety has gained notoriety for jumping out of the water, up to 8 feet in the air. Although it’s an easy catch when the fish jumps into the boat, the flying carp are dangerous, often slamming into anglers (as well as boaters and skiiers). Some fishermen use garbage can lids as shields.

At Big River Fish Corp. in the Pike County community of Pearl, about 30 million pounds of Asian carp annually are gutted, flash-frozen and shipped to China, where there is a big demand. The company also processes the carp for gefilte fish, a Jewish dish especially popular at holidays such as Passover.

Carter said chefs in large cities use the heads for fish stock.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is trying to increase demand for Asian carp. Samples were given away at this year’s Taste of Chicago food fest, and will also be dispensed this week at the Illinois State Fair (see end of article for details).

“Our goal is to get people to try it,” said Chris McCloud, spokesman for the state agency.

At Carter’s Fish Market, a whole, gutted Asian carp sells for 50 cents a pound.

“It’s cheaper than hamburger, but there’s really no demand for it. We’ll get it if people want it,” Carter said.

Chef Parola said eating Asian carp makes sense.

“Most of the fish we eat in this country is imported. It’s full of pollution. Asian carp swim in clean water, it’s available and the taste is incredible,” he said. “We’re buying tons of fish from around the world when we have excellent fish right here.”

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