CHAMPAIGN — Asian carp might get a bad rap as an invasive species of fish in Illinois.
But several Illinois organizations want to get the word out that silver Asian carp — sometimes called silverfin — works well for dinner.
At a demonstration and press conference Wednesday at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in Champaign, officials from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois American Water, Feeding Illinois and the Eastern Illinois Foodbank got together to talk about eating Asian carp.
In a state where hunger is a problem, and protein — especially lean protein — is an expense that some people can't afford, eating Asian carp, which happens to be healthy and plentiful, might be a smart solution.
Creating a commercial market for the fish could mean an increase in fishing and manufacturing jobs in the state, as well, said Karen Cotton, spokeswoman for Illinois American Water.
Tracy Smith, executive director of Feeding Illinois, the network to which the Eastern Illinois Foodbank belongs, said there are still challenges as far as figuring out how to harvest and process the fish in a way that will be usable to food banks.
But she said the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois American Water are bypassing that problem, to some extent, by providing the fish directly to soup kitchens across the state.
In the last year, they've served between 2,200 and 2,300 meals of Asian carp at soup kitchens around the state, said Travis Loyd, deputy director of the Illinois Department of National Resources.
Part of the push is to let people know that silver Asian carp, or what's being called silverfish, is a nutritious, safe fish for human consumption. They're doing it through a program called Target Hunger Now, which Loyd said isn't funded with any state money, but through a grant from Illinois American Water.
Loyd said the fish in Illinois' river systems has been tested extensively, and it's been found to be one of the safest fish for human consumption, with no warnings.
Target Hunger Now is working with Louisiana Chef Philippe Parola, who works with and cooks Asian carp.
He explained that the silver Asian carp, or what he calls silverfin, can be between 13 and 14 pounds and can eat their weight in plankton each day. The fish, along with bighead Asian carp, are an invasive species all the way from Louisiana up to Canada, and they deplete the food supply for other native species.
Luckily, silver Asian carp are "excellent to eat," and those who are concerned about the environment should work to create a demand among consumers for the fish.
Parola filleted the fish as a part of Wednesday's presentation, commenting as he did that it looked like any other fish to him.
"You can see how beautiful the flesh is," he said, adding that it is white and looks like a tilapia filet.
He said the silver Asian carp is tender, bland protein because the fish is not a bottom-feeder.
It has little mercury content, he said, and is high in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Once the fillets were removed, Tassilo Homolatsch, who's studied at the Culinary Institute of America and cooks every Wednesday at Daily Bread, coated them with Creole seasoning, which he said is milder than Cajun seasoning.
He pan-fried the fillets in a mixture of half butter, half olive oil, and the resulting fish was tender but firm, and didn't taste much like fish.
Observers sampled the fish and commented on its flavor and texture.
"Chef, good job," said state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana, who also took part in a press conference following the demonstration, along with state Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign.
"I happen to like fish anyway, so I was anxious to try it," she said during the press conference.
For lunch, the soup kitchen served a silverfin gratin, which combined the fish in a cheddar cheese sauce.