Last October, the infamous silver carp beat catfish in a cross-cultural blind taste test conducted by our research team at the University of Missouri. Although tilapia took the top spot, silver carp's clobbering of catfish—our state fish—suggests that invasive fish could go from biological bane to banquet boon.
Our taste test results encouraged us to forge ahead with a project designed to market Asian carp in Latin American and Chinese-style restaurants around town.
“If our test market in Columbia, Missouri likes the fish products, then we plan to talk with restaurant owners in St. Louis,” said project leader Mark Morgan, associate professor in MU's School of Natural Resources. “Initial feedback from the Chinese and Mexican restaurant owners in Columbia has been positive. Therefore, it seems to be a very promising strategy.
“Asian carp has a mild flavor and absorbs spices and seasoning easily, making the meat ideally suited for fish tacos, chorizo, wontons or potstickers” said Morgan. “Plus, tacos and authentic Chinese dishes are more marketable than those using carp in the name.”
Asian carp suffers from guilt by association with its bottom-feeding cousin, the common carp, and its muddy-flavored flesh. However Asian carp, including the silver and bighead, feed on microscopic plants and animals suspended in the water. Asian carp's meat has a cleaner flavor and pearly white flesh. However, the common carp's stigma attached to Asian carp.
“Most people don't like carp because they are ugly and bony,” said Morgan, “but it's all based on perception. Most people don't realize that Asian carp are healthy and nutritious, high in protein, low in fat and lower in accumulated toxins than other fish.”
Non-native Asian carp species conquered the waterways of the central and southern United States during the past few decades. Silver carp gained infamy because they leap from the water when startled. The meter-long, 27-kilogram piscine projectiles can inflict injury on boats and boaters. Asian carp also threaten ecosystems and compete directly with native fish, such as bigmouth buffalo, shad and paddlefish.
Currently, little market demand exists for Asian carp, which results in low prices for fishermen. Commercial fishermen haul in tons of silver and bighead carp bycatch when they cast their nets for more valuable fish. Yet only a few processing plants handle Asian carp. For example, Schafer Fisheries in Illinois makes kosher foods using the carp, including gefilte fish and fish hot dogs. Two Rivers Fisheries in Kentucky freezes carp for export to China.
Our research group believes that larger markets could be developed for Asian carp in the United States. One way is to take advantage of the carp's ties to Chinese culture, in which silver and bighead carp are a treat, not a threat.
“Bighead carp delicacies are a big tourist attraction to several water reservoirs where the fish live,” said project team member Yun Ho, a graduate student in natural resources at MU. “Restaurants near the reservoirs provide dozens of different carp dishes. I feel very happy and proud to share our delicious food with Americans.”
Chinese-style eateries in the U.S. could take advantage of this authentic ingredient. On the other hand, traditional fish species used in Latin American cuisine may not be imported fresh in parts of the U.S. For example, fish native to the waters around the Baja Peninsula face a long road to make their way into fish tacos and ceviche served in Missouri. Since Latin-American themed restaurants may already have to use non-traditional species, why not use local, wild-caught Asian carp?
Before pitching the Asian carp idea to local restaurants, our team needed to perform a taste test to establish that the fish could meet customer expectations. Observations of the clientele in local Mexican and Chinese restaurants suggested that English, Chinese and Spanish-speakers made up the majority of patrons. Our research team decided to conduct a taste test using questionnaires in those three languages. Food scientist Janelle Elmore of Elmore Consulting helped design, organize and implement the taste test.
Ho translated the questionnaire and taste test instructions into Chinese and recruited Chinese-speakers for the taste test. To recruit Spanish-speaking participants, I coordinated with members of my wife's church, Iglesia Getsemani, and Voz Latina, the MU faculty and staff Latino empowerment organization. I translated the taste test questionnaire, which my wife Dania Wall-Bautista, who hails from Siguatepeque, Honduras, copy-edited.
One hundred and nineteen individuals participated in the taste test on October 22 and 23. Individual samples of wild-caught silver carp, farm-raised tilapia and wild-caught catfish were served one at a time to the participants in a randomized order. Subjects rated the fish on overall likability, aroma, appearance, flavor and texture. Participants received $10 for participating in the test. Ho and I supervised in the kitchen while cooks from MU's hospitality management program prepared the fish. After the taste test, Elmore oversaw the statistical analysis of the completed surveys.
“Asian carp performed significantly better than catfish but significantly worse than tilapia on Overall Liking," wrote Elmore in her report of the results. “Similar acceptance patterns were observed with the remaining acceptance attributes.”
Although Asian carp passed the taste test, obstacles still remain to make Asian carp into fine cuisine. The tiny bones embedded in the fishes' flesh makes them tricky to fillet. Processing and distribution channels would need to grow to meet increased demand. Some conservationists worry that creating a market for carp could inhibit people from eradicating the fish, or that unscrupulous people could spread them to increase supplies.
Despite these concerns and difficulties, our research team suggests that turning a trash fish into a treasure could help the rural economy, increase the food supply and reduce the population of an ecological menace.