The idea of eating Asian carp to slow its predicted incursion into the Great Lakes has been bandied about with varying degrees of seriousness for a few years now. The carp are a hard sell in the U.S.: they’re unappetizingly ugly, and the peculiarities of their anatomy make it hard to harvest the meat. Still, after Asian carp turned up in the Mississippi and Illinois rivers in the aughts, they began finding their way into ethnic markets around Chicago, and today millions of pounds of the ugly, toothless, filter-feeding leviathans are shipped from Illinois to Europe and Asia. In February, at a Chicago “carp summit,” an official from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said the state was investigating ways to open up new markets for the fish as a food source.
So far it’s an unglamorous business. Schafer Fisheries, on the banks of the Mississippi in Thomson, Illinois, is the midwest’s largest supplier of freshwater fish and probably handles more Asian carp than any other right now. They’ve already received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state grant money to purchase carp-processing equipment. Owner Mike Schafer says they use a special boning machine to produce the ground carp that they’ve developed into a smoked spread. The bones and scraps are made into organic fertilizer. When I first spoke to Schafer, he’d just been on the phone to Israel trying to find a way around the 120 percent import duty imposed by the country in November—he was stuck with 400,000 pounds of frozen Asian carp fillets that would otherwise have been bound for Israeli gefilte fish producers. Schafer also wants to sell processed Asian carp to schools and prisons, and he’s pitching it to fast-food companies for use in fish tacos.
But in late January, the carp caught the fancy of Chicago chef-turned-fishmonger Carl Galvan. Galvan handles sustainable and environmental fishery issues for Supreme Lobster and Seafood Company, the giant Villa Park seafood distributor, and his Twitter feed (@ChicagoFishDude), where he posts daily photos of fresh iced sea creatures, is a virtual online fish market monitored regularly by many of the best chefs in town. Galvan wondered what would happen if some of his boutique restaurant customers got their hands on the stuff and worked their mojo. Could they help Asian carp appeal to a larger market of eaters?
There are those who argue that creating demand for the fish will only encourage producers to keep it around. “That’s one way of looking at it,” says Galvan. “But that’s kind of a cynical way of looking at it. I don’t think we’re at that point yet. We’re at a crossroads where something has to be done immediately. Fisheries are massive operations. If we can take a dent out of the populations and allow some of the natural phytoplankton to grow back, and other species to come in, that could have a big impact.”
So in late January Galvan ordered about 100 pounds of the fish from Schafer, and off they went to ten fine-dining establishments, including Vie, Blackbird, SushiSamba Rio, Browntrout, and Cibo Matto.
A couple different invasive species are grouped under the label of Asian carp. Silver carp are the ones that fling themselves dramatically above the water as boats approach, but it was the less aggressive, far uglier bighead carp that Galvan distributed. He didn’t tell all of his chefs what he was sending—he likes to surprise them sometimes—and the carp seemed to unnerve a few.
“So far, all I can say is that they are disgusting,” reported Paul Kahan upon receiving his share at the Publican.
“The shape was salmonlike, with a bull head,” said David Carrier from Kith & Kin. “It kind of looked like a character from Return of Jedi.”
Worse than the bighead’s appearance is a damn near impenetrable bone structure that, given how daunting it made filleting for even the pros, may be the fish’s best defense against theoretical legions of home cooks.
“The pinbones are very strange on the fish because they run down the center, the side by the belly, and they go all the way through the tail,” said Perennial’s Ryan Poli. “When you try to take them out with tweezers, they tear the flesh.” The bones near the front of the fish divide into a Y shape (not unlike a northern pike’s), something many of the chefs had never come across before.
What’s more, the fish have a thick bloodline that runs the length of the fillet. Once the fish is skinned, this looks like a fat strip of red raw beef. Because of its unpleasant vegetal flavor it has to be cut away, further reducing the yield of usable meat. “They almost bleed like a land animal,” said Browntrout chef Sean Sanders. “It’s a very, very bloody fish.”
But how does it taste? Poli was worried about that too: “I thought, this is a giant goldfish,” he said. (Goldfish are in fact a species of carp native to Asia.) “This is gonna taste like a catfish.” He sauteed some in a pan and poached another piece sous vide, and while it wasn’t as bad as he’d expected, it didn’t seem worth the effort. “I didn’t think it had a muddy carp flavor,” he said, “but it didn’t have much flavor on its own.”
At Kith & Kin, Carrier and Andrew Brochu smoked their carp over applewood and made a dip. They said it had a mushy, mealy texture but didn’t want to draw any conclusions about a muddy flavor they’d detected—they worried their particular fish had been tainted by its massive bloodline. And the bones were a bummer. “I’ll tell you what, man,” said Carrier. “We were like 30 seconds from throwing the damn thing away.”
Paul Kahan’s crew didn’t try that hard. “After a few attempts at butchering, we were adequately creeped out and will not go any further,” he e-mailed.
A couple chefs had better luck. After cooking a piece in grapeseed oil and seasoning it with kosher salt, Paul Virant of Vie declared it “a nice piece of fish” with a “very fresh, delicate flavor” and “slightly firm.” Chris Pandel of the Bristol called it bland but saw potential: “If it wasn’t so bony it could make a good sub for whitefish. It’s got good texture. A little of that grassy flavor, but it’s not like a dirty sturgeon, where it tastes like it’s been eating mud. I expected it to taste like catfish, but it’s much more pleasant.” Pandel later smoked half of his fish and was pleased with the outcome. “The fish smoked up to be a very lovely product,” he reported. “We brined it overnight and it picked up some of the aromatic qualities of the brine, making the flavor even more enjoyable. But the bones . . . still had to deal with the bones.”
Through some YouTube research and some practice back at Supreme headquarters, fish cutter Felipe Chairez figured out a way to fillet the fish by cutting around its considerable bone structure. “This whole thing was a learning process,” says Galvan. “And it took us mangling up a good 200 pounds of fish until we figured out the proper technique.”
What resulted wasn’t a single flat fillet but four pieces: two strip loins and two thin fillets from the belly area. The ratio of usable meat relative to scraps was still incredibly low, but it was enough for at least a couple chefs to give it another chance.
In February, when the chefs got their first batch of carp, Phillip Foss of Lockwood gamely allowed me to film his fillet attempt (you’ll find the video in the version of this story at chicagoreader.com). It wasn’t pretty, but after Galvan sent him some deboned fillets he redeemed himself with a beautiful plate, an homage to Daniel Boulud’s classic Crisp Paupiette of Sea Bass in Barolo Sauce.
Wrapping the fish in thin layers of potato and searing it in clarified butter not only protected it from drying out but allowed it to shine on its own terms. And guess what? It was a luscious fish. You might imagine that Foss’s elegant plating with pickled celery hearts, trumpet mushrooms, black garlic paste, and red wine butter sauce would be lipstick on a pig, but you’d be wrong.
“It’s a very good fish,” he said. “About as good of a freshwater fish as I’ve found, period. Very rich.”
Foss toyed with the idea offering his customers a relatively simple Asian carp sandwich at around $6 to $8. But given the specifications he asked Galvan for—100 percent boneless, skinless pieces—the cost shot up dramatically. Galvan wouldn’t quote a price per pound but explained, “Look at it this way. You’re losing 95 percent of the fish. For an 11-pound fish we got .6 pounds of meat. But that’s the specific spec that Phillip wanted. It doesn’t have to be the industry norm.”
Foss wanted to go ahead anyway—and he was excited about selling Asian carp. He wasn’t going to sugarcoat it; he had no plans to call it silverfin, as some boosters are already doing. “This fish has a lot of strikes against it,” he told me. “But this is not a bad-tasting fish. It was more like a bass than it was a carp. You want to do something productive to get it out of the water—why not fish it? Eat it for dinner tonight. These guys will figure out a way to produce it quickly.”
But after a weekend trip to New Orleans just before he planned to try it, and more consideration of the cost and yield, Foss put the kibosh on an Asian carp dish at Lockwood.
Browntrout’s Sean Sanders is still wrestling with the idea. So far he’s worked with nine fish he’s bought from Galvan, paying out of his own pocket rather than the restaurant’s. He and his cooks have learned Chairez’s fillet technique, and he says he’s getting about an 8 percent yield. He has misgivings about the fish’s flavor and texture, yet he’s determined to somehow make a dish that’s menuworthy.
“It’s awful the amount of time and effort that I’ve put into this already,” he says. “I really do want to use it because it’s really a big part of what we have in front of us. But tastewise I really don’t like it. Unless the fish is straight out of the water, it has this metallic flavor. And the texture—when it’s fully cooked it kind of has this bounce-back thing in your mouth.”
That metallic flavor might account for the varying perceptions of the fish among the different chefs—some didn’t get to it as quickly as others. Sanders has tried to mitigate the taste by mixing it with other fish or preparing it with a lot of assertive Asian seasonings. For now, he’s zeroing in on a seared fish cake preparation or perhaps a hot-and-sour soup, and he’d like to get his hands on a live carp to make it happen.
“I still need some time to work with it,” he says. “I think eventually I’ll put it on, but it has to be something I’m really proud of.”