Copi dokey? Illinoisans getting hooked on renamed invasive carp delicacies at State Fair
Fairgoers have chowed down on various forms of copi, better known until last year as Asian carp, the invasive fish that has wreaked havoc on Illinois ecosystems. Copi rangoon, sliders or empanadas, anyone?
Venture past the footlong corndogs, cotton candy and funnel cake stands at the Illinois State Fair, and you’ll find a vendor frying up a bit more exotic-sounding fare.
Fairgoers chowed down this week on various forms of deep-fried copi, better known until last year as Asian carp, the invasive fish that has wreaked havoc on Illinois ecosystems over the past two decades.
State conservation officials launched a rebranding effort last summer promoting copi — named for the regrettably “copious” amounts of the top-feeding carp in waterways from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan — as a light, tasty, protein-packed fish that’s more palatable than the notion of an aquatic invader. The ultimate goal is to entice commercial anglers to scoop more of them out of rivers and lakes.
It worked for Markis Williams and Sarah Joshway, who weren’t aware of the fish reframing when they stopped for a taste of copi nuggets at the Flippin’ Fish Shack.
“It doesn’t have a distinct flavor like salmon,” Joshway said. “Tastes like a white fish. The texture reminds me of a soft crab cake.”
The University of Illinois-Springfield student added that she probably wouldn’t have stopped by the stand if it was selling it as invasive Asian carp.
“I’d give it like an eight out of 10,” Williams said.
A steady afternoon stream of customers sidled up to the Flippin’ Fish Shack counter, which also listed copi rangoon, sliders and empanadas on the menu.
“We have been very busy,” said Darla Drainer, co-owner of the Grafton-based shack, which was contracted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to serve up copi. “People have been seeing the signs all over the place. People just absolutely have loved it. Every time I ask: ‘Thumbs up. Very good.’”
Good enough, she said, that the Drainers are “seriously thinking about” adding it to their regular deep-fried rotation, which mostly consists of catfish, common carp and buffalofish.
That’s music to the ears of Brian Schoenung, who has helped spearhead the copi brand as manager of IDNR’s Aquatic Nuisance Species Program.
Things have gone swimmingly so far, with 17.5 million pounds of invasive carp harvested from Illinois waterways since the copi revolution started last year. Schoenung said they’d eventually like to bump that annual carp crop up to 50 million pounds.
“They grow really fast, so they’re not in a river long enough to really develop any contaminants or anything like that,” Schoenung said of copi, which he compared to crappie in taste.
“It really is complemented by whatever you choose to do with it,” he said. “We served fish tacos on opening weekend [of the fair] last year. Some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever had. And I love fish tacos.”
Springfielder Joe Mizera gave another thumbs-up as a first-time member of the copi club.
“It’s not like a sewer bass,” Mizera joked. “Or even like a catfish. It’s got a nice flavor.”