Aurora giveaway promotes eating Asian carp as tasty, healthful way to fight invader

Aurora residents were treated to a free fish sandwich Friday by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The catch? It was Asian carp, the invasive fish Illinois has fought for four decades.

The event at the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry was part of a campaign to encourage people to eat Asian carp. The fish could be a source of cheap protein for clients of food banks and charity pantries.

The IDNR is trying to get people to look past the Asian carp's bad reputation as a trash fish, officials have said.

Chef Chris Koetke of Complete Culinary asked assembled politicians and pantry supporters what came to mind when they think about carp. One woman said a carp bit her.

“Carp with a thumbs-down,” North Aurora Village President Dale Berman said.

Koetke said they were thinking of common carp, a bottom-feeding fish.

Asian carp — bighead, black, grass and silver varieties — has a mild taste, he said, akin to bass or crappie, because they eat plants. The flesh is white and firm.

“This fish comes with a lot of preconceived notions about what it is and what it's not,” said Koetke, a former executive director of the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. “It's absolutely delicious.”

He made a “burger” out of ground Asian carp. He mixed the fish with salt, spices including ground hot peppers, and bread crumbs (to add fluffiness). He coated them in panko crumbs, then pan-fried them in oil.

Afterward, Berman admitted the sandwich was tasty.

Friday's fish came from Sorce Freshwater Co. of East Peoria. The company is a part of Sorce Enterprises Inc., a food distribution company. It is working with the Midwest Fish Co-Op.

Ted Penesis, IDNR's community outreach director, said the agency may market the fish with a new name, such as was done with the Patagonian toothfish — now better known in the United States as Chilean sea bass. A 2018 IDNR plan, seeking to remove 20 to 50 million pounds of Asian carp a year from Illinois' waterways, suggested pursuing the profit angle to fight the fish.

At Friday's demonstration, Koetke rattled off ideas, including making meatballs for Italian wedding soup.

“I have learned so much about this beautiful fish,” Koetke said.

  A Complete Culinary worker applies sauce to an Asian carp burger at a giveaway Friday in Aurora. Brian Hill/
  Diane Renner, executive director of the Marie Wilkinson Food Pantry in Aurora, hands out Asian carp sandwiches Friday. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources hosted an event there demonstrating the tastiness of the invasive fish. Brian Hill/
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