Fish that "tastes like dirt"
There's a report on the Manhattan board about last night's gathering of Chowhounds at Grand Sichuan Int'l. (I've linked below to the first message in the thread.) A couple of posters mentioned a fish dish that tasted like dirt.
This has happened to me a couple of times in the past few years, and I wonder if anyone can explain the phenomenon. In every instance I've experienced, it was an order of steamed fish.
The first time it was tilapia - not having had much tilapia in my day, I chalked it up to the fish coming from a stinky fish farm with dirty water. And didn't order tilapia again for a very long time. (A recent encounter with a pan-fried tilapia at Grand Sichuan has softened my prejudice.)
But anyway, a couple of months ago I had a dirty-tasting order of striped bass - I believe it was at Chao Zhou in Flushing. We tasted it, it tasted dirty, we started deboning it and noticed it wasn't cooked through. We sent it back for more steaming, and when it came back the dirty smell was gone. So now I have a new theory.
Anybody have any ideas on this?
I worked for a wholesale distibutor of seafood for 8 years and this came up with relative regularity. Many of the chefs we sold to refused to use any farmed or freshwater fish for this reason. Unfortunately, with the state of the environment, economics and politics, the industry is moving in a larger way toward aquaculture.
I wish I could weigh in with something more definitive, but for what it's worth: 1. No one I know in the industry thinks that this is related to undercooking. Perhaps increased temperature 'masks' the flavor? 2. This phenomenon can occur with all freshwater species, wild or farmed. 3. There is some theory pertaining to natural or man made pond vs. concrete raceways, which includes the tank problem in restaurants (cleanliness being next to godliness . .) 3. Some folks in the industry believe it's about feed. 4. Seasonal differences (fish go deep when it's cold).
The first time I became aware of this as an issue was with farmed Hybrid Striped Bass. I didn't have to taste it - the raw, whole fish (so fresh it was still in rigor mortis) reeked of what smelled to me like fertilizer. And it only got worse when cooked. We found that it was often possible to detect at that stage, and would send the fish back to our supplier.
One more bit of food for thought, for those of you who are interested: the aquaculture industry is close to releasing, upon approval of the FDA, species raised using GMO's. Tilapia is being raised with the use of Bovine Groth Hormone and treated with CO2 (beware those fresh-looking red fillets in the grocery stores, tunas, too!). Support labeling initiatives so we continue to have choices.
One last comment to Andy. I loved your recipe!
Perhaps there is an ichthyologist out there that can give us the definitive answer but...
I have heard that carp, catfish and other bottom feeders will taste muddy because they scoop up some mud whilst rooting around on the bottom. Also heard tales like Peter's where people try to minimize the effects. When "cajun" food, with its catfish, took off, we started to see a lot of farmed catfish, most without too much mudiness. From what I understood, they achieved this by feeding the catfish food that floats on the surface, thereby frustrating the fish from rooting around on the bottom. So it seems like farmed fish is less likely to have the muddy taste when compared with the "free range" fish.
I'm inclined to go with the "not quite done" theory, over the "ingesting dirt" theory, to be honest. I can't see how ingesting dirt/dirty water would make the flesh of a fish taste of dirt (I guess I can see how it might make the outside of the fish taste that way if it were not washed before being cooked, but that seems like a thing I don't want to think about at all). On the other hand, I have had the experience of not cooking both tilapia and striped bass enough and encountering a flavor I didn't like (maybe I would describe it as "dirt-like").
I've never had that experience with catfish (which I l-u-v, but cook the hell out of before I eat).
The only "dirty" tasting fish I've ever had was catfish at an otherwise pretty good place. It put me off catfish for a long time, so I'm interested to know it happens to other fish. Catfish being what they are, I wasn't all that surprised at hitting a muddy one, in other words.
When I was a kid growing up in Germany, the traditional Christmas Eve Meal was poached Carp. Carp to be known as a "bottom feeder", often had this "muddy" flavor. My Grandmother, GOD bless her, always bought a live Carp at least two days before the meal, and let it swim in our bathtub "to refreshen it's taste", until to be killed and cooked. But it still tasted muddy, and I have not eaten Carp since Christmas 1942. Main reason was there was no more Carp available (There was a war). My dad had it, I remember at Christmas 1986 in the restaurant "Zum Loewen" in Gelnhausen Germany, and he commented that it tasted like my Grandmother's: "MUDDY". That's that, Peter.
re: Peter B. Wolf
Growing up in the outskirts of Sacramento, I had plenty of opportunity to fish the ponds, streams, and sloughs of No. Cal.
I once, (and only once) brought home a carp that I'd caught, and cooked it up. Tasted just like dirt/mud. Funny thing was, the catfish and largemouth bass I'd caught from the same slough tasted just fine. I've also had a lot of perch, sunfish, bluegill, and crappie that tasted a lot like the way fresh-water moss smells.
It reminds me of the old recipe for campfire carp:
1. Catch and clean a carp.
2. Nail the carp (head and tail) to a 1/2" pine board. Season carp with salt and pepper.
3. Prop up the board on the perimeter of the campfire (carp facing towards the fire).
4. Cook carp until done (about 35-45 min).
5. Carefully remove the nails (they will be HOT), and put the carp in a brown paper bag.
6. Throw away the carp, and eat the pine board.
Sorry, couldn't resist.
re: Peter B. Wolf