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. Gulping one down would be pretty gauche, not to mention expensive, the most expensive koi can go for over a million pounds.
Still, assuming you aren’t eating your pet or dining on some of the world’s most expensive fish, the question remains – can you eat koi, and if so, how and what is it like?
Of course, not all fish are created equal. That’s especially true about koi, which are the result of centuries of breeding to create fish that are famed for their grace, beauty, and especially their distinctive reddish-orange and silvered speckled appearance.
Koi are closely associated with Japanese culture in particular, come in more than 20 different varieties, and are symbolic of 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 a quarter century, quite a long time in “fish years.”
Koi are freshwater fish, making them all the easier to keep (and prepare cooking-wise, if you are so inclined). Ideally, these ponds should be a few feet deep. They can eat everything from algae to other fish and even some fruit, and can grow to large sizes.
But does that mean you can start “fattening up” your koi for their unfortunate fine dining fate?
Koi are a specialized subspecies of a common Asian breed of carp, and contrary to what you might have read on the Internet, they are not poison, so yes, it is technically possible to eat them. Doing so would mean eating something that’s like carp.
Of Koi and Carp
Of course, that begs the question – are carp good to eat in the first place?
If you’re an expert at catching or cooking fish (a real “a-fish-ionado,” if you will) you’ve probably already laughed this off like a wine snob being asked about Two Buck Chuck. As with this infamous type of wine, carp is noted for being inexpensive and tasting like a certain rearrangement of the letters in “carp” itself.
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand, carp definitely isn’t the kind of fish you’d expect to be served at a fine dining establishment. It is extremely common in both Asia and the waters of Europe and North America, where it has been introduced over the centuries as an invasive species.
That is part of the reason why carp have such a bad reputation among Western fish eaters 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 taste of fish is in part dependent on what they’ve eaten, carp included.
That being said, because carp are an invasive species, they are often found in areas where they’re “not supposed to be,” which as you can imagine isn’t exactly the best situation for them to be eating the kinds of 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 environments in which they have been introduced.
Carp is especially common in lakes in the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern United States, all areas where their numbers have surged due to their invasive nature. This means that there are more carp than these freshwater areas can potentially handle, and that the waters in which they are multiplying aren’t always the cleanest.
For example, Dr. Seuss 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 kinds of conditions probably don’t wind up tasting the best.
By contrast, places such as China and Japan, where these fish are indigenous, often have better climates for these fish. It isn’t as though these countries are free of polluted waters, but carp, including koi, are brought up in their own waters and those habitats are in good condition, the flavor can be much better. The same holds true for those calling carp in cleaner waters “the Queen of the Rivers” in the United States.
The oily taste in this case comes much more from the fish’s natural oils. Still, any way you slice it, carp still has a much tougher texture than many other kinds of commonly-eaten fish.
The Case for Eating Koi
By this point, you can start to see why some people might start to wonder if koi fish are actually swimming buffets in disguise. After all, while you don’t want to turn your pets into dinner, the conditions to do so 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 are typically filled with better food.
This has not gone unnoticed by some culinary traditions which make use of koi.
Cooking koi is relatively easy, though with the tougher skin and texture it might take longer than other fish. Still, once you have removed the internal organs, you can steam or fry koi with ease. Cooking it for about 15 minutes should be sufficient.
You may also want to add some herbs along with olive oil and oyster sauce to marinate it.
The Case for Not Eating Koi
All of that being said, however, it’s generally not advisable to turn your koi pond into an instant seafood free for all. The fact of the matter is that while as carp your koi are edible, as most freshwater fish are, there are still plenty of reasons why you probably shouldn’t eat them.
For starters, it’s just “not done.” Koi are beautiful, majestic creatures – 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 majestic (not to mention expensive) creatures, you’d likely face a huge degree of disgust and backlash.
The same goes for koi. It is not considered socially appropriate by many to eat the kind of koi you keep in your pond. Besides the fact that killing and eating pets just looks awful, these koi are, again, a specialized subspecies, and so are not typically associated with the common edible carp to which they are related biologically but not connotatively.
After all, the carp that is commonly caught in rivers is relatively dull in color and can look pretty blasé. By contrast, as mentioned, the kind of koi we keep in ponds are noted for their incredibly beautiful speckled coats. It is shallow to make decisions based on looks, but still, eating something so elegant and beautiful just feels wrong.
Besides that, koi are, as mentioned above, closely linked with Japanese culture. 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) and insulting to Japanese people.
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 will never be thought of as 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 just not proper, could be insulting, and anyway the fish are so expensive (whereas carp are pretty inexpensive) that it’s just 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 probing the depths of your koi pond in peace.