30 October 2008

Carp Fishing in China

I was invited by some friends to go fishing. A German autoparts factory manager was returning home with his Chinese wife and new baby shortly and this activity would be something of a goingaway outing. The photo above helps to convey better than mere words what sort of experience this was. Nature in China is a relative term, which does not cover the same geographic and abstractions as I am accustomed to. I have been to private fishing ponds in the USA where children, mostly, are escorted for the pleasure of pulling a fish, usually a trout or bluegill, out of a manmade, earthen embanked pond. They are located in the countryside, near or excavated out of former farmland with grassy hillocks, shade trees, and other natural amenities. This fishing facility, set in a dense urban environment and screened by a line of willows and alders, was a tightly packed series of shallow lagoons edged with concrete platforms and rusticated cabins for the more refined Chinese sportsmen and accompanying mahjong players. All the tools of the sport were provided by the facility’s management. I found it odd that in a land where bamboo is used for nearly everything applicable, here the reelless fishing poles were made of plastic tubes. The advantage was the lengths stacked inside one another, collapsing down to a shorter pole; however, the corresponding disadvantage was that during use the pole sections would slide down over one another. Yet due to the purchase decisions of the management, after renting the fishing poles, we would therefore not be unduly encumbered as we walked the 15 meters to where we would drop our lines and begin testing our patience.

This water was noticeably unclear. Only fish the most tolerant of low oxygen levels can survive in such muddy, stagnant conditions. This was indeed a carp pond. The carp is a fish revered by the Chinese as much as the pig because of its fecundity and ability to convert inedible waste into edible protein for humans. It was regarded similarly in the US until about the middle of the 19th century when public perception of this fish turned against it. The most rational story is that entrepreneurial farmers invested in creating productive carp ponds out of otherwise unusable waters: ditches, millponds and the like. The fish bred as is their wont and they and the early North American experimenters in aquaculture overwhelmed the local markets and the prices plummeted. At the same time, they also had to compete against species like cod and other fishes which were not only cheaper but easier to debone. Perceived valuation became ingrained in the American psyche: if the fish is so cheap, it cannot be good.

But there must be more to the story than the price drop in the 19th century to explain the disdain for a fish that much of the world reveres in the arts for its fecundity, beauty, and adaptability. The carp seems to have been a big part of the diet of Eastern European immigrants. This might have led to an association with the fish as simply another immigrant, a nonnative that in later years would take on similar language as it competed with superior native fishes in dwindling habitats. While it’s true that the introduction of nonnative species can wreak havoc on native environmental systems, few complaints are ever raised about wheat displacing native grasses with in same domineering spirit. I don’t know anybody who would turn down a loaf of wheaten bread and prefer crackers made from North American Gamagrass because it is native to the biome. Naturalized and domesticated plants and animals can earn the label of native over time. In this process tomatoes have become Italian; pineapples and plumeria, Hawaiian; and beef cattle and mustangs, American.

Growing up along the coastline of Lake Michigan, I was told that the carp was an undesirable fish to eat because it was a bottom feeder and as such it was perceived as a trasheater. This explanation is reverse engineered to explain a deeply seated prejudice. Flounder and lobsters are bottomfeeders and they carry none of the negative associations. We only need to look at the recent resurgence of catfish as an acceptable food for the masses, often deepfried and batterdipped, and heavily marketed as homegrown in flooded Louisianan fields and raised on a diet of corn and soybeans. Topfeeders, in fact, carry the highest levels of concentrated toxins. Whales, clearly the largest of the topfeeders, have been found to have toxic flesh containing halogenated-organic contaminants such as PCBs, DDT among other synthetic poisons. On the other hand, many carp varieties subsist on plant materials, notably the grass carp, which makes their flesh the healthiest and cleanest. Louisianan catfish are raised on soybeans and cornmeal. This distinction takes to an extreme the adage: we are what we eat; instead, we have: we are what is eaten by what we eat. Once reviled by aquaculture producers and ecologists, in a strange twist of fate it seems that the carp might be a savior for the catfish industry. The black carp (Mylopharyngodon piceus) is especially adapted to consuming snails which host a parasite that can kill catfish in aquacultural conditions. They also consume other parasites affecting other marketable fishes.

When I was 18 years old, I attended my first seder although I didn’t understand what it was at the time. The French family who hosted me sat around a carp that had been poached and then carefully restuffed again in its skin with bones painstakingly removed. I was mildly shocked when the head of household greedily selected the head for himself. Having grown up to look down on this delicacy, I was intrigued. This memory got tucked away and was later recalled when I started a career as a chef in a catering company in the USA. I learned to make gefilte fish for American Jewish clients, who would never think of allowing the lowly carp in their food. They preferred topeaters like Great Lakes whitefish, pike, trout, anything but the carp. I doubt even that I could have bought carp then without resorting to an Asian market focused on Chinese customers. I made essentially unfilled gefilte fish, quenelles poached in chicken stock set to a simmer for as long as they took to float to the surface, and not for the two hours prescribed by one recipe from a Jewish mother.

There has been a trend in the American diet to disassociate food from its origins. This is especially true with meat. Meat is most often served in a form that least resembles its fleshy animal source. Hamburgers are round and shaped into identical patties. Atlantic cod is molded into squares and rectangles. The most expensive cut of chicken is the boneless, skinless breast, devoid of the vestiges of a living creature and the least flavorful part, plumped up and selectively bred for size. By contrast, restaurants in many parts of Asia specialize in fishhead soup adjusted to local styles and tastes. The memory of a fish served at a seder at the center of a French family dinnertable is evoked nearly daily in the PRC where live fish and seafood are sold in the most modern of supermarkets. Turtles, eels, and bullfrogs make up a significant part of the selection next to tanks wherein one finds the more western leaning choices of shrimp, bivalves, and salmon. The carp are always there, sorted by size and species.

We were given a papercup of bait, which was a sweetened paste of cornmeal that I packed around the hook. The tackle was basic: hook, sinker, and bobber. The key to catching carp in this pond as it was pointed out to me by the hired driver was to adjust the bobber so that the bait lie on the muddy bottom by sliding a plastic cone along the line and wedging the bobber tightly into it. Being bottomfeeders and accustomed to murky waters, carp find their food by smell and by touch, using their soft mouths along the bottom, stirring the mud and causing the damage to native limnological systems that riles so many anticarpists. Carp can attain rather large sizes. They can live for well more than fifty years and especially in cultivated conditions when they are allowed to do so, they can grow to a weight of 35 kilograms and 1.5 meters in length. In a single spawning, which can occur more than once a year in warm climates, they can produce 300,000 eggs, which in a polyculture system sometimes become food for predatory, topfeeder fish like pike and bass. I had no idea what sizes of carp might be found in this fishing pond. The tackle proved woefully undersized.

While we all stood there with our hands on our shafts, we would occasionally catch sight of a passing bobber arise to break the surface, move slowly, and then slip back under the level calm of the water. At one time, we spotted three such movements. These were the signs that some fish had broken free and still had fishhooks with lines dragging bobbers behind them. Those were the large fighters that we all wanted to pull in. I was no different. Whenever such a mystery bobber got close enough, I attempted to lash my line, wrapping it around deftly, in order to draw it within range so as to be scooped up with a net readied by an accomplice. Twice I succeeded at this level of my improvised carp fishing method. With one bobber locked onto the other and feeling the lines enmeshed, I began to work the fish closer to the jetty, allowing just enough tension to keep the fish from diving underneath so it might not scrape the line against the abrasive masonry piling. That was my plan when I called out to a colleague to make ready the long poled net. The hired driver however was convinced that he should pull in the fish in a manly way and grabbed the line directly before the net could get close enough. The polystyrene snapped as I expected. In a similar bit of piscatory struggle a fellow angler across the pond had his bent pole bust in two to the amazement of all the onlookers. There was less amazement after I hooked another fish and the hired driver decided again to intervene a second time by grabbing hold that time of the fishing pole. I heard the crack and refused to look him in the eye.

In spite of our struggles to wrest these fish from the turbid waters, we still had to pay for our catch. It was weighed up and the more knowledgeable among us agreed that it was a fair price. We then proceeded to head back home where awaiting spouses would turn our hard won game into a feast. A housekeeper helped out as well. Three of the fish went into a kind of stew, a very common way of preparing carp. The flesh was tender and mild while the broth was weak and watery. The additional vegetables added little to the overall flavor. To be certain, carp is full of little bones which can be picked apart between the flakes of the cooked fishflesh. As a testament to their endurance, the remaining carp were left in a bucket to be kept fresh and alive for meals later that week.