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Learning to love America's most hated fish

The common carp has a complicated history

If you find yourself at any major river in the Kansas City Metro, from the Missouri River, the Kaw, the Platte, and everywhere in between, you stand a good chance of seeing a tailing common carp. Very few fish embody the contradictions of our local history than this supremely notorious species. While they were initially introduced to the states for aquaculture, very few culinary traditions still exist around them. 

This is a very short history of one of Missouri’s most hated fish and one way it can be brought back to the table.

Americans are amongst the few demographics who truly dislike Cyprinus carpio, which is highly ironic since they were introduced to the states in the mid eighteen hundreds for food. Today, common carp remains one of the most popular sport fish, particularly in Europe, as well as one of the most farmed fish worldwide. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations places worldwide common carp production in 2018 at over 418 million tons! It’s only beat out by grass carp, silver carp, and tilapia. So why do Americans hate carp? It’s complicated.

The rise of carp as a species mirrored an era of unprecedented urbanization and environmental destruction throughout the US and in particular, the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds. Some sources say carp were introduced to replace severely overfished herring, native to the Mississippi River. Others tie their introduction to fish farms in California in the 1850s. At the time, Americans were increasingly living in places experiencing water degradation to an extreme degree. In Kansas City, the urban growth, coupled with unregulated industrial pollution and raw sewage being dumped into local rivers, meant that many of our native fish just couldn’t thrive. Common carp, however, are tremendously resilient to pollution and outlasted in places where other fish could not. The negative association between carp and dirty water isn’t that far of a stretch.

Carp are, to their discredit, very boney, and American cuisine has come to value boneless fish. It’s not hard to see why a bony fish that people associate with pollution hasn’t exactly become the darling of our dinner plates. Still, some places are keeping the culinary tradition of carp alive. Joe Tess Place in Omaha was one of the last holdouts of carp cuisine in the states until it closed this spring. There is also a quiet commercial fishery for common carp, as well as other carp species, in the Kentucky, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers. Still, those fish rarely hit US markets and are much more likely to be shipped to overseas consumers. Food safety regulations mandating the report of toxic carcinogens and mercury in America’s major river fishes have also led to a decrease in US commercial fishery. Simply put, Americans don’t want to eat carp from the Missouri or Mississippi until they are safe to eat. And who can blame them?

My fascination with carp began when I saw them swimming below the Red Bridge in Grandview, which crosses the Blue River, one of Kansas City’s historic and abused rivers. Every angler I asked about carp had nothing but bad things to say about it and it took me nearly five years to work up the gumption to try one. What I was shocked to find was the horror stories were really not warranted. In fact, I’m happy to report that carp is delicious.

It’s hard to convince the skeptics, and many people have attempted to remedy the reputation of the common carp without success. What I can tell people about carp is that if they want to catch them for the table, they are best off catching them from one of Kansas City’s larger reservoirs, where the water quality is good and the fishing is hot.

There are many myths when it comes to handling carp, but after three years of working in a local fish shop and experimenting with carp myself, I’ve found the following to be true. They must be bled to get the best meat quality. Carp around three to seven pounds are the best size for the table. They must be kept as cold as possible after harvest. They also need to be treated more similarly to salmon and not as a white fish. These maxims led me to a preparation very familiar to our own native, bony fish: the fish cake.

To honor the cultural history of this European fish, while retaining its relatively newly found Americanness, I decided to fuse the German classic, schnitzel, with the Cajun boudin. While it’s not uncommon to fry ground fish, such as sucker or gar, they are typically fried as balls, not as cakes. The white rice in this recipe allows for a thin, crispy, citrusy, and delightful fish cake that any carp skeptic will have a hard time denying. 

Carp Schnitzel

Special equipment needed: Meat grinder


●  1 lb carp fillets (about two from an average fish)

●  ½ cup uncooked white rice

●  1 cup water (for rice)

●  Garlic, salt, and pepper to taste

●  ¼ cup chopped parsley

●  1 cup panko bread crumbs

●  2 eggs

●  ¼ cup white flour

●  Fresh lemons

●  Oil to fry the schnitzel


  1. Cook the white rice and set aside to cool while you prepare the other ingredients

  2. Skin carp fillets and remove any red meat. Whole carp can be filleted like most other fish, but they have a series of y-bones which will be removed in the grinder

  3. Cut fillets into strips and run through the meat grinder on a fine plate

  4. Chop parsley and add to ground carp meat. Also add garlic, salt, and pepper

  5. Add rice to the carp meat until it forms a ball that easily holds its shape. You can add some flour to help bind the mixture together if needed

  6. Heat the oil in the pan so it is hot, but not smoking. Place flour, egg, and panko in separate, wide, and shallow dishes for coating the cakes.

  7. Form a ball with the carp mixture then press into as flat a cake as possible

  8. Flour each side of the cake, dip in egg, and bread in the panko

  9. Gently place into the pan and fry on each side until golden brown

  10. Squeeze the fresh lemon over the carp schnitzel and serve with cooked cabbage