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Illinois Giving Asian Carp a P.R. Makeover

Hot & Cool Food Trends

Officials in Illinois are trying to attack two major state issues by making the idea of eating Asian Carp more palatable.

If more people can be convinced that the invasive fish makes for a decent meal, it will a) help prevent the plankton-eating species from entering the waters of the Great Lakes, and b) provide food for the record numbers of the state’s citizens dealing with hunger today.

The concept’s primary hurdle is the negative image of carp as an ugly, cheap, lousy-tasting fish.

Chris McCloud, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, says if people can simply get past the name and the negative perception, carp can prove to be a highly nutritious, inexpensive meal. The department has launched a campaign to improve the fish’s image and demonstrate how to prepare the admittedly bony fish.

Louisiana chef Philippe Parola has become a national proponent of the fish he calls silverfin (sounds a lot better than carp, no?). Illinois officials have brought Parola on board for the campaign. He says the fish, when fried, tastes much like mahi mahi, and he will be demonstrating cooking techniques and offering samples to folks in the audience at various gatherings.

Whether it’s called carp or silverfin, officials hope eventually to get the fish to the state’s soup kitchens and food pantries—but they admit that’s probably a few months off.

Anti-hunger activists in Illinois are praising the idea of serving the carp, especially with increasing demand for food stamps. An average of 1.8 million people rely on the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program each month, according to statistics from earlier this year. That's up from 1.2 million people monthly in 2006.

Nutritionists note that Asian carp is low in mercury because they don’t eat other fish, while it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids.

Asian carp were originally imported to the U.S. from China. They escaped into the Mississippi River in the 70s and have spread across a multitude of waterways here. Bighead carp can get as large as 4 feet long and 100 pounds. Silver carp are known for leaping out of the water, sometimes slamming into unsuspecting boaters.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who was recently in China, tasted some carp, and reportedly said it tasted like tilapia.

Chef Phillip Foss was one of the first to serve carp in a Chicago high-end restaurant. You can find recipes on his blog, thepickeledtongue.com, including one for "Carp-accio," which has cucumber and watermelon among its ingredients. He said it's not easy to fillet because of the bones, but everyday cooks could use its minced form as a beef substitute.

I guess if you’re hungry enough…

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