As a young man who had loved fishing as a boy, when I first came to Japan and ate carp I was astounded. It was so delicious! This was a carp from a mountain fish farm. At this farm, river char (iwana) were raised in the first pond, fed with water that came from a cold mountain stream. The char were fed a little, but not too much. The water from the char pond flowed into a downstream pond in which rainbow trout (niji masu) were raised. In the next downstream pond the carp were raised. Even though uneaten fish food and other effluent came into the carp pond, it wasn't really tainted because of the fast flowing water and carp gobbling char and trout leftovers.
Until that time I had been prejudiced against carp believing them to taste too muddy! Carp in Britain were usually swimming in murky ponds, canals and moats.
Carp have been raised for food in China since the 5th century B.C. Christian monks returning from the crusades in the Middle East (1095-1291) brought carp back to Europe, raising them in special ponds to be eaten on Fridays, when meat was forbidden. Carp were brought to Japan from China at least 1,900 years ago. Carp were originally bred for color in the 1820s in the town of Ojiya in Niigata.
Since coming to live in northern Nagano I often eat carp. We have a couple of ponds in our Afan woods into which a friend introduced carp, and our forester took to feeding them. The water comes from a small mountain stream and underground springs -- cold and clear. (There are wild char in our other small streams) The carp raised in our ponds were fat and delicious and fun to feed but we made the decision to drastically thin them out because they stirred up silt from the bottom of the ponds, nibbled away at the earthen banks, and gobbled up aquatic insects. We had carp feasts, prepared in so many ways; as a rich miso stew, or as raw slices over which scalding water had been poured -- even carp curry.
Other local freshwater fish are trout and char from the Torii River that runs right by my study/gym, and we have a fish farm close by. From Lake Nojiri, 10 minutes' drive away, we get smelt (wakasagi). Last week I had to drop into our Town Hall in order to vote in a local by-election (I have Japanese citizenship so it's my duty to vote) and a friend gave me a bag full of these delicious little fish. That night we had them at home for tempura, the rest I shared with my staff.
Japan has 222 species of endemic freshwater fish, 83 of which were known only to this country. Also, several species, like the rainbow trout have been introduced. In 1978 Chinese grass carp (sougyo) were introduced to Lake Nojiri in order to control aquatic plants. This severely reduced aquatic vegetation in the lake, making some plants extinct and badly affecting a lot of aquatic life. Somebody also introduced alien bluegill and black bass to the lake, which was not such a good idea either.
Grass carp can grow up to 40 kilos and have now become the biggest freshwater fish in Japan; however, I don't know anybody around here who eats them. I have heard of some Americans eating them fried or smoked, and if anybody here catches one and gives it to me I'll certainly try it. Coastal folk, which means most of the Japanese, tend to turn their noses up at freshwater fish, but I think that it should be considered a valuable resource, for food, sport, aquatic biodiversity and the simple pleasure of seeing them there.
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This is the fourth installment of a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol.