Philippe Parola thinks so. Ever since that silver carp jumped into his boat last summer, the chef has been working with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to change the way fishermen, fish suppliers, restaurateurs, and diners think about Asian carp. It's a familiar role for Parola, who made a name for himself in Louisiana by acting as the public face of two prior efforts to re-brand "problem" species. In the 1980s, Parola promoted alligator meat to help alleviate a supply glut after a slump in the market for alligator skin. Alligator sausage is now fairly common on Louisiana menus. Parola had far less success in the 1990s, when he teamed up with the state in a quixotic attempt—putting it kindly—to convince people to eat nutria, a voracious swamp rodent that looks like a cross between a rat and a beaver.
Parola had heard about the problems Asian carp was causing, and decided to see if it might be a candidate for re-branding. He took the fish that jumped into his boat to a friend's kitchen to test it. "I cut it up and cooked it up, and to my real surprise, it was an unbelievable fish," he said. "It's like eating jumbo lump crab meat when you eat that fish. It's amazing."
As a self-appointed spokesman of sorts for a new effort to promote Asian carp in Louisiana, Parola is hardly a disinterested critic. But it's true that Asian carp is considered an excellent eating fish in many parts of the world, especially China. "I've eaten them many, many times in China," Chapman, the fish biologist, said. "They'll take the fish and steam it with peppers. It's really good."
However, in addition to its name, Asian carp has another major problem. "It's an extremely bony fish," Parola admitted. The carp's complex bone structure makes it impossible to filet in a traditional manner—making it difficult to see how it could win many converts in the American market. "In China, you don't pick other people's bones for them, unless they're babies, because they want people to learn how to do it," Chapman explained. "But in our country, people don't know how to pick bones."
Still, Parola felt the fish was marketable. He got in touch with Gary Tilyou, an administrator at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries with whom he had worked on the ill-fated nutria campaign. Together, they devised a promotional strategy that tries to address the Asian carp's shortcomings. To get around the bone problem, they decided to initially market the carp for use in processed "fish products" like fish cakes and fish soups. They also taught suppliers methods of cutting the fish that yield relatively bone-free portions of flesh for cooking.
At the same time, to reduce its association with the common carp, they decided to give the fish a new name: silverfin. "I don't think we need to mislead anybody, but [carp] is a bad name," Tilyou said. This sort of fish renaming has worked well before: before it was introduced to American consumers in the 1990s, the beloved Chilean sea bass was known as Patagonian toothfish. (Apparently, Asian carp will not enjoy as thorough a makeover. According to Tilyou, retail fish markets will still have to label the flesh as carp.)
At first glance, the plan has a certain lemonade-out-of-lemons appeal. But something about it struck me as odd: wouldn't creating a market for Asian carp conflict with the goal of eliminating it? "There's an inherent contradiction if someone is trying to say, 'We're going to create a market in order to eradicate it,'" pointed out David Lodge, a biologist at the University of Notre Dame who has researched the spread of Asian carp. Lodge described the plan to increase commercial demand as a double-edged sword. "If there's an abundant fish that we can make attractive to humans, then let's derive some more benefit from it," he said. "But the other edge of the sword is this: as soon as there is an incentive to harvest this fish, there is also an incentive to create populations of it, or start populations of it elsewhere." In other words, if efforts to promote Asian carp as food are successful, other rivers and lakes could soon be threatened.
The Louisiana Asian carp campaign began in earnest last month, when the state started supplying fish wholesalers with low-cost Asian carp and encouraged them to bring it to the retail market. One of the participating wholesalers is the Louisiana Seafood Exchange. Rob Walker, one of the company's owners, told me that after some experimenting, they had opted to supply their customers with carp steaks. "When you grill it, or pan-sear it, or bake it, once that meat stakes to flake off, you can use a fork to navigate around the bones," Walker said. But he told his customers they should warn shoppers that "you're never going to be able to dig in, grab a big chunk and go straight down with it."
Given the low price at which the state provided the fish, Walker was practically giving it away to his retailers. Assuming the trial run is successful, Walker believes it could eventually sell for about $1.75 per pound, which would make it one of the cheapest food fishes available.
Walker told me his company had delivered some carp steaks to a Breaux Mart supermarket in New Orleans, where I live. Last week, I met up with Brad Horton, the friendly and knowledgeable manager of the store's meat and fish department. Horton had decided to give the fish a trial run, but he was extremely skeptical. He had put the fish out in the display case but hadn't managed to sell a single piece. He told me that a couple of customers had commented, "Isn't that the trash fish they're trying to get rid of?" After two days, he decided to take it off the shelf.
Horton led me into a cold-storage room and picked up a package with a couple of carp steaks wrapped inside. "It doesn't look very good to me," he said. I had to agree. The flesh looked quite bloody and rather dark, and it was possible to feel the bones in the fish just by holding it. Horton shook his head. "Honestly," he said, "I don't plan to carry it unless customers start asking for it."
I bought two steaks for the bargain-basement price of 99 cents per pound, for a total of $1.47. With low expectations, I took them home and soaked them for a bit in a marinade of lime juice, Dijon mustard, dark sesame oil, soy sauce, and fresh ginger.
As I handled the fish, I became more optimistic: the flesh was firm but felt tender, and there was actually no blood at all. Also, the fish gave off remarkably little odor. Duane Chapman, the fish biologist, had recommended grilling the steaks, so I laid the fish on the grill and hoped for the best.
My verdict? Very tasty. It's firm and moist, with a very mild flavor. Its consistency wasn't great: a bit dense. But if I had to compare it to another fish, I would pick cod. It's not an exact match, to be sure, but not too far off. (One thing it definitely did not taste like was jumbo lump crab meat.)
And, in truth, the bones were a real impediment. The fish is simply full of them, and I found that the flesh did not flake much. Basically, you put in your fork, pull out a piece of fish, and just see what happens. The problem is that each mouthful requires your undivided attention, so that you don't choke. Meanwhile, the fish gets cold while you eat.
That said, for 99 cents a pound, it was hard to complain.
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