Bighead Carp
Whole Bighead Carp [Speckled Amur, Tongsan, Noble Fish, Hypothalmichthys nobilis alt Aristichthys nobilis]

This Asian (probably Chinese) carp has been introduced worldwide and escapees from pond clearing duty now populate waters in 23 U.S. states where they, and their near relative the Silver Carp, are considered troublesome invasive species. Bighead is a filter feeding fish that lives on plankton near the surface of the water and is used to clear algae from ponds.

This fish is common in Asian markets in Los Angeles, where it is generally sold in sections due to its large size. Split heads are sold for making soup. This fish can grow to over 5 feet and 100 pounds, but the photo specimen was 3 feet 6 inches and weighed 19.2 pounds, factory cleaned. That's a full size dinner fork in the picture for scale.

More on Carp Family.


This fish is considered very desirable through most of the world and is one of the most eaten fish worldwide, but in North America it is cooked and eaten mainly by Asians. The flesh of Bighead Carp is near white and has practically no "fishy" taste. There's a dark streak down the side just under the skin but that streak does not have a strong flavor. The flesh, which breaks into large flakes when cooked, is tender but durable enough for steaming, poaching and using in soup, but I don't consider it a particularly good frying fish.

Bighead Carp does have a "spine problem" similar to that of other carp and to Milkfish (Bangus), a fish in a related order. Some find the spines annoying, but unlike those of the milkfish they are impossible to remove before cooking. To enjoy delicious carp Americans just have to learn to deal with the spines at the table like the rest of the world does.

Personally I don't have a problem with the spines. As with most fish, I eat carp with chopsticks, breaking it up as I go along. The spines are large and easy to find that way. You can remove the spines after cooking (see below), but if you don't, provide a small bowl or some other way for your guests to dispose of the spines. Even in formal Victorian society it was permissible to remove fish bones from the mouth (but nothing else).

I recommend cutting Bighead Carp into lengths of 2-1/2 to 3 inches as shorter pieces make it more difficult to deal with the spines. Poaching or steaming are excellent methods for cooking. After pieces are cooked you will find the spines projecting beyond the flesh where, if you don't want to deal with them at the table, they can easily be pulled with your long nose pliers.

Bighead carp skin is quite thick and gelatinous, and a little chewy, but does not have a strong or off flavor. It shrinks moderately when cooked but not enough to be troublesome, but is a little difficult to deal with on the plate. I strip it off the fillet, cut it into short strips and add them to fish soup because I like gelatinous things.

Buying:   This fish can be found sold in chunks in many East and Southeast Asian markets but I've never seen it in the Philippine fish markets. Occasionally it is sold whole - or if you want a whole one you can ask at the fish counter (if anyone there speaks English).

Cooking:   Most cooking methods suitable for a large fish can be used for Bighead Carp. It remains firm enough to steam or poach but I don't consider it a good frying fish - too fragile and not enough oil in the flesh. It is tender, so while simmering for 10 to 15 minutes is fine, a rapid boil or much longer cooking is likely to break it up.

Do Not cut carp into pieces smaller than 2 inches long. Doing so makes the spines nearly impossible to deal with. For small fish, (fillets or whole) it is best to not cut at all if possible.

Scales:   Most carp have huge hard scales, but Bighead has small flexible scales. Unfortunately this is not good news because there's a zillion of them and they adhere strongly to the skin. I find shaving them off with the sharp edge of the knife works better than regular scraping with the back of the knife, but some have to be pulled using long nose pliers. This is a difficult to scale fish, but not as bad as piranha.

Cleaning:   This fish is fairly easy to clean, just cut from the vent right up to the underside of the jaw (you'll need kitchen shears from the pelvic fins forward) and pull stuff out. The gills are fairly soft and pull out relatively easily, but you may want to cut them loose at the ends with your kitchen shears. Of course, if you don't intend to use the head you needn't pull the gills.

Fillet:   This fish is not difficult to fillet, though there are areas where there are no bones to follow. I fillet the flesh off the ribs rather than cut them loose and deal with them on the fillet. The ribs are easy to follow and carp bones are stuck in hard and difficult to pull. The region at the ends of the ribs is very thin and will separate, so nothing below the ribs is included in my weight for fillets. In any case the belly contains some fat which may be bitter, so is best discarded.

Yield:   The photo specimen weighed 19.2 pounds and yielded 7 pounds of skin-on fillets (36%) and 6 pounds 2 ounces of skin-off filets (32%). The skin-off fillets were 1-1/4 inches thick at the thickest point. This yield is low because of the weight of the massive head, but at the right price (I paid 2009 US $0.99 per pound for the photo specimen), it can still be quite economical.

Bighead Carp heads are commonly sold in Asian markets for making soup, but I personally am not real fond of carp stock so I would use it only for a recipe that called for it specifically. Unlike Grass Carp stock I didn't notice any bitterness with Bighead.

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