On most Saturday afternoons, you can find Dirk Fucik leading a cooking demo at his Lincoln Park shop, Dirk’s Seafood and Gourmet. Sometimes he offers salmon samples. Others, it’s cod. Today, he’s serving carp — both bighead and silver species, ground up into sliders.
The carp meat, says Fucik, is better than tilapia — and his customers love tilapia. “It’s got much better flavor,” he says. “The only thing better about tilapia is that it’s got no bones.” At least in comparison.
Bighead and Silver Asian carp thrive in Illinois waterways just south of Chicago. Each year, government-contracted fishers remove roughly a million pounds of the fish from the Illinois River. The goal is to keep the invasive species from moving into the Great Lakes, where they could wreak havoc on the freshwater ecosystem by outcompeting native fish for food.
While Asian carp haven’t populated Lake Michigan yet, many nonprofits, as well as state and local governments, don’t want to take any chances. The Army Corps of Engineers recently proposed the newest iteration of a plan to upgrade the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet. The $780 million project would install an acoustic deterrent, bubble curtain, and upgraded electric barrier along the river. But with the project awaiting Congressional approval, fishing and the current barrier are all that keep the carp from migrating north.
If carp were a more popular lunch option, Fucik says, fishers would have more of a financial incentive to scoop them out of the river. One solution is to make the fish palatable to consumers — thus his cooking demos. Another is to market the plankton-eaters as silverfin, in the same way Patagonian toothfish is sold as Chilean sea bass.
But Fucik doesn’t believe in that.
“I really believe in selling Asian carp for what it is, letting it stand on its own merits,” he says. Because the fish has a fairly neutral flavor, it’s a blank slate for all sorts of tasty seasonings.
For his spin on the carp slider, Fucik double-grinds most of the 10 to 12-ounce fish he buys, because they’re so bony. He mixes the meat with panko or salsa, and serves it with mustard or an addictive spicy mayo. In October, he even bound one batch together with pumpkin. He also makes carp gefilte, carp meatballs, and carp tacos. “Anything you can do with ground meat you can do with carp,” he says.
In the past decade, Fucik has served his carp delicacies at Taste of Chicago and other events in the city. He’s sold carp to a woman in Arizona who planned to use it in a cooking class, and to another superfan in Kentucky. Slowly, he says, the fish is catching on.
His chief plea is that people give carp a chance — especially, on their first try, without any of the fixings. “Asian carp is always pure white meat, real clean flavor,” he says. “I already know that the spicy mayo’s great, but you know, you can eat that on your finger. Just taste the burgers.”
This story was reported in collaboration with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.