Chả Cá Nuggs takes a nose-to-tail fin approach to eating the invasive copi

The invasive fish formerly known as Asian carp was renamed “copi” earlier this summer by the Department of Natural Resources. Short for “copious,” the state hopes that a vaguely Mediterranean-sounding rebranding will entice consumers to eat more of the bony, obscenely prolific, freshwater filter feeders that have outcompeted native species for all that good Illinois River algae and zooplankton since the aughts—after they’d apparently escaped the southern catfish and water treatment ponds they were imported to clean up.

The state’s Choose Copi campaign brought in the big guns, recruiting chefs like Brian Jupiter of Ina Mae Tavern and Frontier, Beverly Kim of Parachute and Wherewithall, and Paul Virant of Gaijin and Vie, to extol the firm, clean-tasting, healthy flesh of the leaping leviathans.

It’s not the first attempt to redeem the erstwhile Asian carp, a group of four surface swimming species—silver, bighead, black, and grass—whose nominal association with their whiskered, bottom-feeding, muddy-flavored cousins have kept them out of markets and restaurants, just as much as their obstinate, unfilet-able bone structure.

Neither factor has ever been an issue in southeast Asia where they’re a staple—valued additions to hot pots and soup bowls, either chopsticked whole or emulsified into cakes and fish balls.

That was Jaren Zacher’s thinking a year ago when he embarked on an independent R&D project in his home kitchen, looking for a “holistic” approach toward eating the fish into oblivion, or at least environmental manageability. “It doesn’t present as a filet really well just because of the Y bones and general structure of the fish,” says Zacher, who runs a copi-focused bar snack pop-up called Chả Cá Nuggs. “A lot of Americans aren’t exposed to fish that hasn’t been fileted. But I come from a Jewish background. I’ve been eating gefilte fish since I was a kid. I think that’s why I felt comfortable going into it like this. I looked at where these fish were originally coming from—southwestern China, Thailand, Vietnam—and what they do there is they use it in fish cakes. So, ‘Ok, let’s look at it that way.’”

Zacher, who’s 28, has worked in restaurants since he was teenager, mostly in the front of the house—and for a two-year stint in Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’s accounting department. He became interested in the carp problem when their potential threat to the Great Lakes made headlines about a dozen years ago. “I tuned in on that, and it was something always in the back of my mind. Like, there’s definitely a way to solve this problem from a food perspective. But I was a young twentysomething; I didn’t really have the experience to figure out what that was.”

Zacher found his way into the kitchen often enough. As the lead food runner and expeditor for LEYE’s rotating chef concept Intro, he volunteered to stage in the kitchen throughout its one-year-and-change run. When he took off for Australia in 2018, he landed a stint in the kitchen of Josh Niland, the Sydney-based chef at the forefront of sustainable fish cookery. “He’s all about using as much of the fish as possible—kind of that nose-to-tail mentality—he uses offal; he makes charcuterie. It made me reevaluate how I was looking at copi.”

When Zacher returned home last fall he cleaned out the limited minced Asian carp reserves at Dirk’s Fish and then reached out to the DNR who pointed him in the direction of Roy Sorce of downstate Peoria’s Sorce Freshwater Company, a “family-owned purveyor of tasty invasive fish.”

“He works directly with a cooperative of fishermen who fish the Peoria Pool of the Illinois River. He’s got a processing facility that backs up to the river down there. The guys pull the fish right out of the water and drive their boats right up to the facility. They’re processed straightaway, so it’s a quick, clean, fresh process. You don’t get any of the stagnation that can happen with river and lake fish.”

Zacher started out with small amounts of Sorce’s minced copi, and began experimenting with binders, seasonings, and batters until he settled on a standard fish cake base he was happy with, emulsifying the fish with cassava flour and cornstarch for elasticity and chew; seasoning it with onion and garlic powder, salt and pepper, and bit of paprika; and dredging McNugget-sized cakes in cornmeal and rice flour tempura before deep frying.

Credit: Greg Rothstein

He named his concept for Hanoi’s storied turmeric-seasoned freshwater fish dish, Chả Cá Thăng Long, and incorporated a magnolia blossom into his logo to refer to New Orleans and the undersung cross-cultural Vietnamese-Cajun cuisine that emerged along the Gulf coast starting in the 80s. “I wanted to pay service to the food traditions I was pulling from without appropriating. I see the fish as cross-cultural. The preparation is inspired by where the fish are from, and the flavor profile demonstrates how it could adapt here. I’m trying to present both angles to show how much of a blank slate copi can be.”

He debuted his deep-fried copi nuggs at a pop-up at Kimski in June, served with a handful of vegan dipping sauces: miso BBQ, honey mustard, lime cilantro crema, and remoulade. “It surprises a lot of people that I’m making a vegan remoulade. It’s not like I need to make vegan sauces, but I want to showcase this fish as much as I possibly can.”

He offered a trio of po’boys too, built on Ba Le bread, which included a riff on a banh mi, with a variant steamed and fried fish cake; a take on a traditional New Orleans oyster po’boy subbing in carp nuggs; and a nod to the McRib, with pickles, onions, and barbecue sauce.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” he says. “This is definitely a one-man show, and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.” But the feedback was encouraging enough that he followed up with two more pop-ups at Ludlow Liquors in August and September. His fourth is this October 10th at Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up at the Kedzie Inn in Irving Park. More on that later.

For now Zacher’s not trying to get into food manufacturing or restaurant supply. His efforts are purely public-spirited.

“This is a self-funded brand awareness campaign,” he says. “Maybe I’m a little too altruistic about it all, but I think it’s a good quality fish, and I’ve got no problem putting my time, sweat, and effort behind it to get more people to try it out.”

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