Turning Asian carp from a menace into dinner


Asian carp may indeed be poised to destroy commercial fishing as we know it in the Great Lakes, but Reggie McLeod likes his smoked or pickled.

The Vietnamese community cooks carp in coconut milk with lemongrass and chili peppers. The Polish like to draw out the pungent fishy odor by soaking it in milk and onions.

At Joe Tess Place in Omaha, Neb., which has proudly served deep-fried carp sandwiches since the 1930s, it’s presented on rye bread with fries and handmade coleslaw.

The humble Asian carp, which by some accounts is now within six miles of Lake Michigan, didn’t ask to be at the center of a legal and political firestorm. But in a short time, this scaly bottom feeder has attracted the attention of the White House and the U.S. Supreme Court, which is considering whether to force Illinois to close locks and dams in Chicago-area waterways to keep the carp out of the Great Lakes.

There’s no question this ugly, stinky fish has an image problem in the United States. But so many varieties of carp, including the feared Asian carp, have been popular in ethnic cuisines for so long that some can’t help but see Illinois’ current crisis as the culinary opportunity of a lifetime.

“The only thing wrong with eating Asian carp is that it has the word carp in it,” said Steve McNitt, sales manager at Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill., one of the largest carp processors and distributors in the country. “It’s a tasty fish, a fleshy fish. Think of all the hungry people around the world you could feed with carp.

“We shouldn’t be trying to eradicate it; it’s too late for that. We should be eating it.”

Since escaping from government fish hatcheries and catfish ponds in the South during the 1970s, Asian carp have made their steady and dramatic way up the Mississippi River toward the Great Lakes.

Feeding on vegetation and plankton, Asian carp -- a term that actually encompasses four varieties of carp -- are fast, prolific breeders that can weigh up to 100 pounds and eat several times their body weight a day.

Some estimate there are tens of millions of pounds of harvestable Asian carp in the Illinois River -- a tantalizing prospect for anglers and entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on a slimy, silvery gold rush.

Schafer Fisheries alone processes about 12 million pounds of carp a year from a 30,000-square-foot facility near the banks of the Mississippi River, across from Iowa. Nearly 10 million pounds are shipped to China, Japan, Canada and Europe, McNitt said. The rest is sent to restaurants and ethnic grocery markets in Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago.

Bighead carp, a variety of Asian carp, arrives twice a week at markets such as Mayflower grocery in Chicago’s Chinatown, where it sits amid the imported salted mackerel and the dried octopus.

At a Vietnamese supermarket in the Uptown neighborhood, bighead carp is sliced thin and wrapped in cellophane for $2.19 a pound.

Customers can buy whole carp or just the heads at Rubino’s Seafood Co., a wholesale fish distributor, which sold about 15,000 pounds of it over the holidays. Co-owner Ron Caminiti said the carp has two crucial obstacles to wider culinary acceptance: bones and a bad rap.

“It tastes good, but it’s very bony, and most Americans don’t like that,” Caminiti said. “My Polish customers? They love it. But anything Americans have to eat so gingerly isn’t going to become popular.”

McNitt agreed. “As soon as you tell them it’s carp, it’s over,” he said.

When it comes to fish, name and reputation go a long way, industry experts say. Chilean sea bass was not so popular when it went by its original name, Patagonia toothfish.

Similarly, many Chinese won’t eat carp known to have lived in rivers, said Z.J. Tong of the Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute, but they will happily fry up those from lakes or fish farms. Tong’s family in northern China sautes carp with garlic, ginger, onions and other spices.

Reggie McLeod, who edits and publishes a small, Minnesota-based magazine dedicated to the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, said carp suffers from “a cultural bias” in the United States. The fish looks terrible, and it smells bad, but it has a subtle, moist flavor that is surprising -- provided all the bones are removed.

“My dad always told me [carp] was inedible,” McLeod said. “But I have fished a lot and eaten a lot of fish, and carp has a very mild taste that I really like.”

McLeod became so taken with the smoked and pickled varieties his friends offered him that his publication, Big River Magazine, sponsored a contest last year asking every chef, angler and fish-lover in Minnesota, Iowa and western Illinois to submit their favorite carp recipes to be judged by the magazine.

“No one entered,” he said, somewhat deflated. “I guess we have a way to go still before it catches on.”

With all the recent buzz about Asian carp, though, McLeod said he planned to relaunch the recipe contest this year.

Schafer Fisheries thought so much of Asian carp in 2006 that it entered talks with lawmakers in Springfield to cultivate carp meat to feed prisoners at the nearby Thomson Correctional Center and other state prisons. However, the response was tepid, McNitt said.

Caminiti, no fan of carp himself, said the fish’s only chance at the mainstream is if a celebrity chef takes pity on it.

“You get some fancy chef to throw a sauce on it and charge $25, people will buy it,” Caminiti said. “But it’ll never happen.”