Asian carp – could it be what's for dinner?
Usually, when environmental officials talk about the voracious fish from China that have invaded Hoosier waters, it's about how to eradicate them. But now some are also saying if we can't beat 'em – well, maybe we ought to eat 'em.
At a public forum last month in Fort Wayne, government policymakers said that part of the region's strategy for combating the spread of Asian carp is developing its potential as food.
"It's a very tasty fish," says Phil Bloom, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. He sampled Asian carp, deep-fried, during a DNR-sponsored wild-game tasting at this year's Indiana State Fair.
"It's very mild-tasting – it doesn't taste fishy at all," he says, calling carp's firm, white flesh similar to that of tilapia or cod. "The problem has been trying to develop a market for it."
That's because Americans just don't have an appetite for Asian carp, even though the fish is widely consumed around the world, said John Goss, chairman of the Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee after the meeting at the Allen County Public Library.
But now, several Midwestern companies are working to boost carp's commercial culinary potential, Goss says. "They're definitely part of what we think can be done."
Since July, Two Rivers Fisheries in Wickliffe, Ky., has been paying commercial fishermen to catch Asian carp in regional rivers, says Angie Yu, company president. Two Rivers has exported about 500,000 pounds of frozen carp to China, she says.
The company also has opened a small fish market at its processing plant so locals can buy carp, and Yu would like to expand to the restaurant and retail trade.
She sees a large untapped American market of not only fish-lovers but also the nation's growing Asian population.
A favorite preparation is in soup, made by creating fish balls with chopped carp and seasonings and cooking them in boiling water enhanced with chopped greens and chicken or fish bouillon powder.
"We cook it at home," Yu says. "We entertain many friends, and (American) people who taste the fish, they like it."
Chef Philippe Parola of Baton Rouge, La., says he's been trying to change Americans' perception of carp as "a trash fish" for years.
People think Asian carp is like native carp, which are bottom feeders and strong-tasting, Parola says. But Asian carp are actually filter feeders that strain algae and plankton from the water.
Scientists say that is bad for the ecosystem, because the carp destroy the bottom of the food chain on which other aquatic creatures depend. But as a result, the carp are low in pollutants and fat and high in protein, says the chef, who has developed recipes for carp cakes and other dishes, does carp-cooking demonstrations and is now raising capital for a production plant for the cakes.
Asian carp aren't on more restaurant menus, he says, because chefs can't get the fish unless they know a fisherman, he says. And some chefs balk at boning them because it's too time-consuming. The fish have sets of Y-shaped bones that run their length and aren't removable by machine.
Parola says carp readily absorb the flavors of seasonings and take to typical fish preparations, including sautéing, baking, blackening and deep-frying.
"I wish more chefs were involved with this (fish) than there are," he says.
But John McNitt, sales manager for Schaefer Fisheries near Peoria, Ill., says carp remains a tough sell to Americans.
That company bought 20 million pounds of Asian carp, mostly from the Illinois River, last year. Most was shipped to about 16 countries overseas, he says.
"Asian carp is one of our projects for a long time. I've worked on it for 12, 15 years trying to create a market for this fish, and we've really yet to do it in any big way," McNitt says.
The problem, he says, is that Americans like their fish in fat, boneless filets.
"Nobody in America 40 years or younger is going to eat a fish with bones in it," he says. "We're spoiled."
McNitt says the carp that are sold domestically by his company, bones ground up, go into gefilte fish or minced-fish products such as fish cakes and sticks or smoked products, including fish jerky, salami or hotdogs.
To combat stigma, Parola refers to Asian carp as "silverfin." Yu says her company sometimes calls Asian carp Kentucky whitefish, while others have dubbed it Kentucky tuna or Shanghai bass, according to Branding Strategy Insider, an online magazine.
In Indiana, probably the easiest way to get Asian carp is to catch it, Bloom says.
Anglers, however, aren't exactly smitten because the silver and big-headed carp species average 20 to 30 pounds – generally too big to be hooked.
And as plant eaters, they don't respond to typical insect and worm bait, says Bud Montgomery, a fisherman in Terre Haute who prepared carp, deep-fried and blackened, for a carp lunch for environmental officials on a Wabash River sandbar. He says that when he's caught carp, it has been with a net.
The Asian silver carp species also have the disconcerting habit of jumping out of the water when disturbed by noise or movement. They've been known to smack full-force into boats, and, occasionally their occupants, Montgomery says.
Bloom says Asian carp have been spotted in the Wabash River as far north as the base of the dam at Roush Lake southeast of Huntington. So more local anglers may soon have their chance to land them, he says.
He urges anyone who catches an Asian silver or big-headed carp not to throw it back or leave it beside a waterway but to clean it and eat it. It's illegal to possess live Asian carp in Indiana, Bloom says.