Asian carp chili or carp burgers, anyone?

Although Asian carp filets are too bony for most U.S. consumers, boneless minced carp can be used as healthy stand-in for ground beef in some recipes. A recent University of Missouri blind taste test found that Asian carp rated higher than catfish.

Silver carp filets are bony but have a mild flavor. | Michigan Sea Grant
Silver carp filets are bony but have a mild flavor. | Michigan Sea Grant

Asian carp chili, anyone?  It may not sound appealing at first, but Dr. Mark Morgan at the University of Missouri has received rave reviews for his unique chili on several occasions.  Morgan and other collaborators at MU have also conducted blind taste tests and surveyed anglers to investigate the possibility of developing new markets for Asian carp products.  Results of his work were presented at the 75th annual Midwest Fish & Wildlife Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana, in mid-February.

It should come as no surprise to learn that the survey found many Missouri anglers were skeptical about trying Asian carp.  In Missouri, catfish are preferred as table fare over trout and bluegill, but carp ranked near the bottom according to survey results.  Popular perception is at odds with the reality of carp’s culinary potential, though.  In blind taste tests, Missourians rated Asian carp significantly higher than catfish.

Part of the disconnect results from confusion of Asian carp with the bottom-feeding common carp.  While the (undeserved) bottom-feeding reputation, odd appearance, and low status of “carp” as a menu item are problems that could be overcome through education and marketing, there is another strike against Asian carp.  All carp species have intramuscular bones that cannot be removed using standard American or Canadian filleting techniques.

Morgan’s solution is ingeniously simple: use minced Asian carp.  While minced or ground fish products are not widely available in North America, the growing popularity of ground turkey and other alternatives to ground beef suggests that a boneless, low-fat minced fish product has much potential.

The low fat content of minced Asian carp makes it difficult to form burgers, fish cakes, or meat balls without adding binding agents like eggs or bread crumbs.  However, using minced Asian carp makes a great stand-in for ground beef in chili, tacos, burritos, dumplings, and other recipes that call for a crumbly texture. Silver carp has a mild flavor that readily absorbs other seasonings and spices.

As for the economics of Asian carp, we all know that the supply (of silver carp in particular) is very high.  The demand remains low, and this means that prices are also low.  Commercial fishers in the Illinois River and other large rivers might get $0.15/lb. depending on market conditions.  Given the expenses associated with running a commercial fishing business, it is not profitable to continue fishing when the price is at or below $0.10/lb. 

This is one reason why attempts to market non-food carp products have been less than successful.  Processors intent on turning carp into fish meal, oil, or fertilizer have not been able to pay commercial fishermen enough per pound to cover their costs.  Exporting large frozen bighead carp to China has been more economically viable, but it does nothing to put a dent in the super-abundant silver carp found in Midwestern rivers.

What about minced fish?  The MU survey found that subjects were willing to pay $2.09/lb. for boneless minced Asian carp.  Survey results are one thing, but the idea will never catch on unless people can find the product for a reasonable price in supermarket store freezers. 

Enter Moser’s Discount Foods in Columbia, Missouri.  The grocer is now offering the minced product for $1.99/lb. and early sales are encouraging.  Although minced Asian carp is not yet available in Michigan, ideas for utilizing bony fish meat are very relevant in the Great Lakes State.

A home meat grinder can be put to good use on skinned sucker filets or other bony fish.  Ground sucker can be used in the same recipes as minced Asian carp.  Michigan State University Extension also recommends pressure canning and pickling methods for preserving bony fish meat.

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