Chef Tamie Cook stood outside the Tennessee Aquarium late Wednesday morning, frying Asian carp in a Dutch oven under a bridge to nowhere between the facility's Ocean Journey and River Journey buildings.
A shipment of the invasive fish came in last week, so Cook — who has long led the aquarium's annual educational Serve and Protect program — experimented with different recipes to introduce the carp to the public: baked, fried and even in a soup. On Wednesday, she set a table, cooked the fish and handed out samples to aquarium guests, employees and passersby.
"I decided to fry them because who doesn't like fried fish, right?" Cook said. "I just think fried fish is one of those things that if you're trying to get people who are afraid of fish to eat fish, it's very approachable."
There's been little consumer market in the U.S. for eating Asian carp. State and federal agencies have used funds to incentivize commercial fishing to harvest the invasive species. However, most are sent overseas.
American consumers have seemingly been scared away by the fish's name. However, unlike common carp, Asian carp aren't bottom feeders. They feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton.
"A lot of the world is already eating this fish," Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Chief of Fisheries Frank Fiss told the Times Free Press last week. "We were open-minded enough to try it, and it's very good meat. It's white meat. It takes seasoning very well. It's hard to overcook, which is good, because I don't like when people overcook my fish."
It's mild in taste without the fishy flavor found in other types of seafood, Cook said. The fish largely take on the flavor of the seasoning, he said.
Wednesday's taste-testing served as a preview of next month's Serve and Protect event, which will focus this year on Asian carp. The seafood dinner raises money for aquarium conservation efforts and teaches the public about sustainability.
"For the first seven years, we used sustainable fish that you could serve and be sure you're not depleting waters, eating an endangered fish or eating something that's not raised in good conditions," aquarium president and CEO Keith Sanford said. "For the last two years, we featured invasive fish. We really want people to take these out of the water and eat them so we can get rid of them."
The hope is groups like the aquarium, the TWRA and others can get the fish in front of the public to at least give it a try. They believe if consumers try it, they'll like it and consider eating the carp at home or in restaurants. Once there's a demand, they believe Asian carp could be more widely available in U.S. restaurants.
Currently, the fish is served only in a handful of American cities, including New Orleans, Louisville and Chicago. Nashville-area restaurant Saffire used to serve the fish but went out of business in 2017. New Orleans chef Michael Gulotta, who serves the fish in his restaurant, will participate in the aquarium event.
Groups stopped to try carp samples Wednesday morning. Some guests were hesitant, but most seemed to like it after trying. That was the case for new Chattanooga resident Brooklyn Wright, who was visiting the aquarium with her family. She was nervous but pleasantly surprised.
"I really couldn't taste the difference," she said. "It just tasted like normal catfish."