Monday, November 21, 2011

Carp dinner in China, sustainable and good

What could be more sustainable than a dinner of plant-eating farmed carp? But is it a GOOD dinner for a westerner? Time to find out.

During my recent trip to China I was interested to find a real Chinese carp dinner. I grew up fishing, and my father and everyone else taught me to throw carp back in the water. "You can't eat those things" I remember being told.

But the Chinese know better, they've farmed carp for thousands of years. In fact, carp farming in China is the biggest farmed fish industry in the world. Most of the carp never make it out of China, and they almost never find their way to the western world.

My host in Qingdao, Songlin Wang, took me walking through the
town restaurant district and we shopped the live fish tanks until we found a place we wanted to stop.

All of the restaurants had a variety of live fish in tanks, ready for diners to call one out to become dinner. We chose the grass carp, the staff reached into the tank with a net (photo, top right), and our dinner came out of the tank flopping and headed for the kitchen.

We asked for a spicy preparation and the cooked carp soon arrived in a steaming pot, head, tail, spinal column and a few more interesting bits (photo, left). The dish had Sichuan pepper which was spicy and had a slight, temporary numbing effect on the lips.

The carp was great. It was tender, with a mild flavor that complemented the sauce nicely. The only challenge was some small bones that had to be pulled out of many of the pieces. The bones didn't bother me, but might easily annoy a more squeamish eater. Of course, the carp's head staring at us from the pot would probably be a bigger challenge.

One nice feature of this dinner, you can be sure that you know what you're getting in this type of seafood restaurant, there is no chance for fish fraud. Unlike the widespread problem in the US of restaurants feeding customers fake substitutes for expensive and desirable fish, here you can see that you're getting what you ordered.

The dinner was a great success, I'm a carp fan now, ready to promote these sustainable fish.

But wait, they're not certified!? It's true that there may be some farming practices of concern, waste or nutrients in the effluent water. But these plant-eating fish can be grown without added feed, so they're very close to sustainability without much extra effort.

Growing millions of tons of carp is a sustainability success story for China, it's a very good thing that China is NOT growing this much farmed salmon.

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