Asian carp rebranding: fish story or sustainable?

Calling it Copi takes its place among fish rebrands.

joliet — Asian carp are “leaping” beyond the Illinois River and into Illinois restaurants and grocery stores under a new name: Copi.

This rebranding of four species — bighead carp, silver carp, grass carp and Black carp — is taken from “copious,” a fitting name for this “invasive carp out of the Great Lakes,” according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Asian carp isn’t the first food (or fish) to be rebranded. Copi’s predecessors include orange roughy (slimehead), Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish), peekytoe crab (mud crab) and Chinese gooseberries (kiwi), according to the IDNR.

In the case of Asian carp, harvesting it for food is another way to keep the invasive species away from the Great Lakes.

But will people buy it – and eat it?

That’s a multi-million dollar marketing question.

As the Christian Science Monitor reported, the Army Corps of Engineers and the concerned states around the Great Lakes agree that the carp are a serious threat to ecology, as well as its $7-billion sport-fishing market. The Corps is tasked with finding ways to keep the voracious fish out of the big ponds.

But if people will eat the fish, why the delay in bringing Asian carp to market?

What’s in a name?

Apparently, everything.

Before it rose to popularity in the 1990s, orange roughy was a fish “you couldn’t give away,” said Michael McGreal, chairman of the culinary arts department at Joliet Junior College. McGreal said he saw the price of orange roughy climb from $2.50 a pound to $14 as demand and over-fishing increased.

Over-fishing Asian carp probably won’t happen. IDNR estimates harvesters could extract 20 to 50 millions pounds of copi each year just from the Illinois River.

Fishing for carp isn’t new. People do fish for other carp in some Great Lakes and rivers, McGreal said. Carp is a “muddy” fish with a “gamey” taste and overall “unpleasant flavor.”

Asian carp – copi – apparently does not fall into that category.

“This is a different species all the way around, even though it came from the carp family,” McGreal said.

The old adage “you are what you eat” also applies to carp. Some species feed off the silt and soot at the bottom of murky rivers and ponds, which contributes to their strong taste, McGreal said. In fact, the taste of fish in coastal areas declines after a hurricane due to the fish eating from “muddy, disturbed waters,” McGreal said.

Similarly, people may notice the taste difference between corn-fed and grass-fed beef, the stronger smell of package cauliflower to its fresh counterpart or the equally strong odor of cooked asparagus when it’s reheated the next day, McGreal said. All these experiences influence people’s feelings about food, he said.

Now Asian carp – copi – actually feed on plankton and other vegetation, which gives copi a lighter taste than regular carp, McGreal said. But people associate the name carp with a “skunky” taste. So copi “has a bad rap right out of the bag,” McGreal said.

Changing the name might dispel that.

The bare bones and a ‘shredded mess’

However, copi’s bone structure makes it difficult to fillet, McGreal said. Unlike many other fish, copi doesn’t have a comb-shaped backbone, where the bones align in a perfect row, he said. Copi has many y-shaped bones throughout the fish.

“By time you get done, you have a shredded mess,” McGreal said.

Still, flaked copi could work in fish tacos, as well as fish cakes, fish nuggets and fish sticks, McGreal said.

Far-fetched? No more so than flaked tuna in a can, he claims.

Stuff ground copi into shrimp or use as a budget-friendly substitute for ground crab, currently retailing as high as $30 a pound, he said. Or substitute copi for crab in eggs Benedict.

Because ground copi holds water, the results can be “sloppy;” so add breadcrumbs to soak up the extra water, McGreal said. That’s why chefs add breadcrumbs to meatballs. The crumbs soak up the meat juices and keep the meatball soft.

Copi’s mild flavor pairs well with strong-flavored dishes, such as Cajun foods, McGreal said. He said chefs and students at culinary schools could experiment with copi to “make something people would enjoy.”

People already love the concept of locally grown food served farm to table. So why not locally harvested fish, from boat to table?

And, yes, McGreal has tried copi.

“It has a mild taste,” McGreal said. “Like tilapia.”

Six reasons to give copi a chance, according to the state.

1) Mild taste due to copi ‘s diet of plankton and vegetation

2) Heart-healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids

3) High in protein (second only to salmon)

4) Low mercury and lead levels

5) Wild-caught (not farm-raised) locally: from boat to table

6) Reducing copi numbers in the waterways restores the ecosystem

For information and to find restaurants and retailers offering copi, visit choosecopi.com.