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Feb 16, 2001 05:18 PM

Fish that "tastes like dirt"

  • h

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?


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  1. 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.

    6 Replies
    1. re: Betty

      I associate this taste with pond-farmed freshwater fish, like catfish and tilapia, which I mostly tend to avoid for that reason. Heidi's comment about the tank fish sounds like the same phenomenon, non-fresh water, maybe algae.

      1. re: Betty
        Peter B. Wolf

        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.

        1. 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.


          1. re: Andy P.
            Peter B. Wolf

            Hey Yoroshiku, That with the board is done in Mass and Conn during the month of May, as fresh caught "Shad" is prepared the same way. Just kidding. Peter

          2. re: Peter B. Wolf

            There's an article in Tuesday's that talks about carp in the bathtub, thought you might appreciate it (link below).



          3. re: Betty

            I have had great catfish...but bought some frozen fillets at Walmart (never again!) and it tasted like tin, or a metal...even dirt I guess you could say. What causes that? Is it bad for you?

          4. I've repeatedly had this occur at places with in-house tanks. Often enough that I won't order it anymore. I say it tastes like old pond water. YUK.

            1. g
              Gabriel Solis

              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).


              1. 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.

                Joe Moryl

                1. I don't have any scientific info, but I was at Grand Sichuan last night and had tilapia. It was definitely:
                  1. Cooked all the way through
                  2. Still had a slight "dirt" taste.