In 1939, a fishy undergraduate bet at Harvard led to the first recorded “goldfish swallowing.”
Goldfish obviously aren’t usually dinner, but the prank caught on, leading to a nationwide college campus craze of goldfish gulping as a popular thing to dare unsuspecting underclassmen to do.
Maybe you’re wondering how on Earth someone could ever want to eat a fish you would otherwise find swimming around in a bowl or aquarium. Then again, maybe you’re suddenly eyeing your koi pond and starting to wonder if that’s really even possible.
Of course, koi ponds are lovely outdoor fixtures, while koi themselves are prized fish in much of Asia.
Not all fish are created equal. That’s especially true about these famed koi fish (Cyprinus rubrofuscus), which resulted from centuries of selective breeding to produce their grace and beauty, especially their distinctive reddish-orange and silvered speckled appearance.
Koi are closely associated with Japanese culture. They come in more than 100 unique varieties, all believed to symbolize everything, from love and wealth to luck and prosperity.
What’s more, they can live for a long time. Your average goldfish tends to last just a few years, but koi can live for more than forty years, which is quite a long time in “fish years.”
Koi are freshwater fish and a subspecies of carp, making them all the easier to keep (and prepare cooking-wise, if you are inclined). They aren’t picky with their diet, eating everything from algae to other fish and fruit.
But does that mean you can start “fattening up” your koi for their unfortunate fine-dining fate?
To put it simply, contrary to what you might have read on the Internet, they aren’t poisonous, so yes, it’s technically possible to eat them. Doing so would mean eating something like carp.
See my guide on the differences between Koi and other carp.
Of Koi and Carp
Of course, eating them and enjoying them are two different issues. And that begs the question: Are carp good to eat in the first place?
If you’re an expert at catching or cooking fish, an “a-fish-ionado,” if you want, you’ve probably already laughed this off as a wine snob asked about Two Buck Chuck.
As with this infamous type of wine, carp are known for being inexpensive and tasting like a specific rearrangement of the letters in the word “carp” itself.
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, carp certainly isn’t the fish you’d expect served at a fine dining establishment. But that’s only expected, given their reputation as an invasive species in Europe and North America.
In fact, that’s part of the reason why this species of fish has such a bad reputation among Western fish connoisseurs in particular.
Remember when we talked about how koi can eat everything from algae to fruits to other fish? Well, the old phrase “you are what you eat” certainly rings true here, as the flavor of a fish typically depends on their diet, carp included.
That said, as an invasive species, people often find carp in areas where they’re “not supposed to be.” In other words, waters where they can eat the things that are either nutritious or will bring out their full flavor.
Put simply, the reason so many Western carp have that “muddy,” “oily,” or “trashy” taste is because that’s potentially part of what they’re eating in the environment.
Carp is common in Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern lakes of the United States. Bodies of water that aren’t always the cleanest.
Dr. Seuss once alluded to Ohio’s once-filthy rivers in the original version of The Lorax, with sad Seussian fish leaving “In search of some water that isn’t so smeary. I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.”
While Seuss later removed the line after Lake Erie became much cleaner, it isn’t hard to imagine how fish living in those conditions probably didn’t taste the best.
By contrast, places such as China and Japan, where these fish are indigenous, often have better climates for these fish to thrive.
I’m not saying these countries are free of polluted waters, but carp, including koi, are brought up in their native waters. In short, habitats that suit them and are in good condition, so the flavor of carp from these areas can only be much better.
The same holds true for those calling carp in cleaner waters “the Queen of the Rivers” in the United States.
The Case for Eating Koi
By this point, you can see why some people could wonder if koi fish are actually swimming buffets in disguise. After all, setting your love for these swimming jewels aside, their conditions are arguably far better than with wild carp in some wild lakes and rivers.
Instead of polluted waters, cramped confines, and poor food quality, koi ponds have cleaner water, more room to swim, and filled with better food.
This opportunity has not gone unnoticed by some culinary traditions using koi fish meat. Bengali cuisine, in particular, includes tel koi, a known traditional fish curry in South and Southeast Asia.
That said, cooking koi is relatively easy, though preparing the meat is usually more challenging than other fish because of its tough skin texture. Still, once you have removed the internal organs, you can steam or fry koi effortlessly.
Cooking it for about 15 minutes should be sufficient, adding some herbs, olive oil, and oyster sauce to marinate it.
The Case for Not Eating Koi
However, although you can technically prepare and consume koi fish, most people won’t recommend turning your koi pond into an instant seafood-free for all. And there are still plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t eat them.
For starters, it’s just “not done.” Koi are beautiful, majestic creatures. So, do you really want to slaughter them, slather them with sauce, and serve them on a plate?
Sure, swans are “technically edible,” too. But if you seriously suggested killing and eating such magnificent (not to mention expensive) creatures, you’d likely face a massive degree of disgust and backlash.
The same goes for koi. Thus, it’s not considered socially appropriate by many to eat the kind of koi you keep in your pond.
You might understandably think it shallow to make decisions based on looks. Still, eating something so elegant and beautiful just feels wrong.
Besides that, koi are an important fish in Japanese tradition and culture. They often appear in Japanese art and literature, portrayed as emblems of tenacity and signs of courage amid adversity, qualities tied closely to their national identity.
Think about it this way.
Just as you wouldn’t fry up a bald eagle or beaver and would understand why an American or Canadian would be infuriated if you did, killing elegant pond koi could be seen as culturally insensitive (to say the least).
Still curious about these remarkable koi fishes? Here are some common questions from people with similar interests that could help you.
What does “Koi” mean in Japanese?
Outside Japan, people call them the Japanese Koi Fish or Koi, but did you know that’s an informal name for their species?
Koi in Japanese means “love” or “romantic affection.” So, when speaking of the fish, the Japanese usually use “Nishikigoi,” which translates to “swimming jewels.”
Do koi fish carry diseases?
Like most freshwater fish, Koi fish is susceptible to plenty of marine life illnesses. Depending on their living condition, they can carry parasites, worms, or bacteria.
Ich, for example, is a common parasitic disease among the Japanese Koi Fish. Thankfully, the parasite has no ill effect on humans, even if it latches on your skin.
Is it safe to touch koi fish?
It’s safe to touch koi fish with your bare hands, but I won’t suggest it. Though, not so much for your safety but for the fish.
Touching causes stress to marine life and can lead to illness or death. Parasites can also transfer to the koi fish, including the deadly Ich.
So, where does that leave us on the matter of eating koi?
On the one hand, you can certainly eat carp, the fish to which koi are related.
They may not have the world’s “cleanest” reputation and aren’t the finest fish in the sea delicacy-wise. But properly fished and cleaned, they can make for an inexpensive and possibly surprising meal, especially when served in traditional Asian and Indian dishes.
On the other hand, koi themselves aren’t necessarily fit for this. It’s improper, could insult some cultures, and the fish are simply so expensive (whereas carp are inexpensive) that it’s not worth it.
Most koi are too big for that “goldfish swallowing” prank anyway, but even if they weren’t, they’re probably best left to probe the depths of your koi pond in peace.
Ben has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, you can find him at home with wife and two daughters. Outside of family, He loves grilling and barbequing on his Big Green Egg and Blackstone Griddle, as well as working on projects around the house.
If you want more backyard tips including recipes, how-tos and more, make sure you subscribe to my youtube channel