Common Carp
Whole Common Carp [Cyprinus carpio carpio]

Possibly originating in the Danube river, these fish have been transplanted all around the world and have become pests in some areas. They can grow to 80 pounds and 47 inches long but the photo specimen was 25-3/4 inches and weighed 7 pounds.

This is a highly commercial fish just about everywhere except North America, where fancy varieties are used mainly as a landscaping accent. Common Carp prefer larger lakes and slow moving streams with muddy bottoms and eat just about anything. Wild carp and decorative koi tend to be less deep of body and without the distinct hump typical of farmed carp.

In England there are recreational "Catch and Release" carp ponds for fishing enthusiasts (carp are not easy to catch). If the the mangement judges you to be an Eastern European they will not let you in. Eastern Europeans don't understand the "release" part, and try to take the carp home for dinner.

More on the Carp Family.

The flesh of Common Carp is white, tender, smooth in texture and mild with practically no "fishy" taste. Just about anyone should find it enjoyable - but, Common Carp does, like all carp, have a "spine problem" similar to Milkfish (Bangus), a fish in a related order. Some find the spines rather 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. If you don't want to deal with them, use catfish instead (unless you're an observant Jew or Muslim - catfish isn't kosher or halal).

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 are easy to find that way. In any case, do 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).

There's no need to skin Common Carp, but some picky eaters just won't eat skin, so you may want to serve filets skin side down so such people can leave it on the plate easily, or you can easily peel it off after cooking.

The whole fish is often cut into segments and cooked skin-on as in the Polish recipe for "Carp Jewish Style". This calls for the carp to be cut into chunks and the head to be split in half. The halves are laid over the vegetables along with the chunks for cooking (head to be removed before serving).

Another way carp is prepared is to cut the flesh into segments but leave the backbone intact. After cooking the backbone will no longer hold the fish together and the segments can be distributed easily.

Buying:   Most American fish markets don't carry carp, but it can usually be found in markets serving a Southeast Asian Chinese or Philippine community.

Cooking:   Most cooking methods suitable for a large fish can be used for Common Carp. It remains firm enough to steam and pan fries just fine with a light dusting of rice flour. 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 about 2 inches on a side. Doing so makes the spines nearly impossible to deal with.

Scales:   Common Carp is completely covered with very large scales, nearly 1 inch square for that 7 pounder. Adhesion is fairly firm so they take some effort to scrape off and they'll fly around quite a bit. They curl as they dry so they're not difficult to clean up, but make sure they don't get into your drains, they could cause a clog.

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. There's a big two chamber swim bladder but it comes out easily and the gills are fairly easy to pull out. The one obstacle is the throat which contains a massive grinding mechanism that's not real easy to pull out.

Skin:   Common Carp skin does not shrink badly when cooked, in fact you can take a hunk of skin and pan fry it and it'll stay pretty flat. It has no strong or objectional flavors, so it hardly seems worth the bother to remove it. If you insist, Carp fillets can be skinned fairly easily using the standard long knife and cutting board Method.

Fillet:   This fish is easy to fillet with plenty of bones to follow. It is one fish where I fillet the flesh off the ribs rather than cut them loose and deal with them on the fillet. They're easy to follow and carp bones are stuck in hard and difficult to pull.

Yield:   The photo specimen, 25-3/4 inches long and 7 pounds, yielded 3 pounds 5 oz of skin-on fillet (47%) and 2 pounds 14oz skinless fillet (41%). Not a super high yield but typical of fish with bony heads and lots of innards. At 2006 US $0.99/pound for that 7 pounder (purchased in a Philippine market in Los Angeles) that's still pretty economical compared to most fish.

Soup Stock:   Carp heads, fins and bones make a serviceable medium flavored stock, and you could probably toss in skins as well. There is very little oil - but you should separate what there is and discard it (use your gravy separator).

Note: this 7 pound carp in the photo showed all signs of being a fresh fish (bright eyes, red gills, springy flesh, clean, firm innards) but did have a fairly strong musky odor with a hint of ammonia. After thoroughly scrubbing the outside of the fish the odor was completely gone.

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