Can You Eat Koi Fish? (And Why You Probably Shouldn’t)

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Can You Eat Koi Carp? (And Why You May Not Want To…)

While most people have at least a general idea of what a koi fish is, many don’t actually know just how incredibly magnificent they are, or

can you eat koi fish
Over the centuries, careful breeding has resulted in hundreds of sub-varieties with countless color, scale, and shape combinations.

the extent of their cultural significance! Long ago, koi fish were domesticated from the common carp; their popularity has only grown since then, with 13 primary classes and hundreds of variants of them today. Each koi breed has uniquely intricate and beautiful patterning, scales, and coloration.

Koi fish have been a very popular pet species for indoor and outdoor ponds all across the world for centuries, and have remarkable and unusual longevity for a fish. Believe it or not, they tend to live for about 70 years when kept in captivity! In nature, however, they have an average lifespan of about 30-40 years. Koi fish are highly esteemed for their spiritual and cultural significance across a variety of cultures, often symbolizing peace, friendship, and wealth.

It is believed that carp domestication began in China as early as 6200 BC, with mtDNA sequencing supporting the belief that koi are ultimately descendants of the common carp (Cyprinus carpio). The modern Japanese koi that are increasingly common companions in backyard ponds today are believed to date back to Japan in the 19th century, when rice farmers began to capture and breed carp in rice paddies as a practical and reliable food source.

After carp domestication became an increasingly common practice, farmers began to notice the variety of natural and beautiful color mutations that resulted from the cross-breeding of different carp. They began to appreciate the fish less for their value as food, and more for their intrinsic value. This shift in perspective caused a dramatic shift in culture over time. People then began to breed the fish more selectively with the intent of producing more beautiful and meaningful fish that they could enjoy. In both Japan and China, koi were typically displayed in water gardens as a symbol of prosperity. 

A Little History of Koi in Culture & Cuisine

what do koi symbolize butterfly koi
Koi have historically symbolized all manner of things, such as this butterfly koi that represents beauty and harmony.

Historically, koi fish were bred to be used as a food source for Japanese rice farmers. The domesticated carp were easy to care for, and thrived in the dual-use rice paddies. Today, koi fish have established a much greater significance across Japanese culture!

In modern day Japanese culture, the koi carp is tightly woven into the national identity. Because of their strength and dedication in swimming upstream, they are sometimes compared to Samurai warriors in Japan. Koi fish strongly symbolize material and spiritual abundance and growth, and good fortune in life. They also represent good luck and perseverance. Additionally, each of the many unique color variants of the koi fish has its own unique significance.

One of the first varieties of koi to be consistently bred in Japanese culture was the Kohaku, one of the “big three” koi varieties. The Kohaku forms the genetic baseline of many other varieties, yet is still a gorgeous and highly sought-after variety on its own. They are characterized by a white body with red markings. The white coloration symbolizes purity, while the contrasting red patterns signify the sun. Golden colored koi, known as Kin-Rin, represent growth, wealth, and prosperity while the platinum colored Ogon koi symbolizes career success and monetary wealth. The butterfly koi, which boasts long, flowy, beautiful fins, signifies beauty, elegance, and harmony.

These are just a few examples – there are so many different variants of the koi, each with a different historical or cultural significance. Whichever variant of koi speaks to you personally is believed to reflect on your unique and individual personality, and on your perspective and outlook on life overall.

pond gardens surrounding the International Buddhist Temple
Many Buddhist temples feature koi pond gardens, as Buddhism views koi as representatives of bravery and peace. CC BY-SA 3.0, Millie Wan of the International Buddhist Society

Because of their high regard in Japanese culture, koi fish appear regularly in Japanese folklore. In nature, carp are known to make arduous, life-threatening journeys upstream as a part of their life cycle. There is a legend surrounding this admirable journey in which the gods recognized this fish for its perseverance and grit. After observing it tirelessly swim up streams and waterfalls, the gods transformed it into a powerful dragon as a reward for its strong, noble, and determined character.

The koi fish is also an important symbol relating to Buddhism. Similar to Japanese culture, the koi fish is representative of courage among Buddhists.  

When it comes to cultural cuisine, koi fish meat is occasionally found on menus in the form of fish taco recipes or curry dishes. It can also be grilled with a variety of spices. In Bengali culture, a popular dish is called ‘Koi Tel Jal,’ which is a flavorful fish curry dish.

Why You May Want to Eat Koi

bengali koi cuisine koi tel jel tel koi dish
Koi Tel Jel, or Tel Koi, is a traditional Bengali curry dish that can feature koi fish. Photo by KoyeliC, CC BY-SA 4.0

After reading this far, you may be curious to find out what koi tastes like for yourself! Such a significant fish must taste like something otherworldly, right? As mentioned before, koi were historically bred and raised to be used as food, after all! Throughout the many years since that time, mankind’s relationship with this fish has changed and grown drastically and it is not eaten as readily as it once was.

With that being said, koi can still sometimes be found on menus and in home kitchens in Thai and Bengali cuisine, and even in parts of Europe. In the United States, koi and other carp have a bad reputation when it comes to palatability as they are considered an unsightly invasive species that are primarily bottom-feeders, resulting in a bias that they are low-quality fish with low-quality diets. 

One reason you might be interested in tasting koi fish is if you are travelling in a foreign country and want to try the local cuisine as part of the cultural experience. Trying something new can be a positive growth experience and can help you learn more about a culture and its history through your taste buds.

If you were to try eating koi, you would likely intake about the same nutritional value as you would from eating most other fish species. They would be closest in nutritional value to a common carp, their direct natural ancestor.

Why You May NOT Want to Eat Koi

Koi have impressive long-term memories, and learn to recognize their owners and trust them. Roy Luck / CC BY-SA 2.0

If you read the previous section and were aghast at the idea of eating a koi, don’t worry – we love koi, too! Many people are unaware of just how intelligent koi fish really are. While fish don’t often come to mind when you hear the word ‘pet,’ koi are often an exception. When regularly fed and properly cared for, koi fish are capable of recognizing their owners, with some swimming to their hands to be touched. This is not too different from the affection sought by a cat or dog! They can even learn to discern their own name if the owner spends enough time at the water’s edge and uses the fish’s name regularly.

In fact, multiple studies have emerged showcasing that many fish are not only capable of creating long-term memories, but that their long-term memory functions quite well! Koi are able to modify their behaviors quite quickly and adeptly based on environmental changes, and even engage in some political and hierarchal rivalry – a type of intelligence known as Machiavellian intelligence that we previously thought only humans, other apes, canines, and felines possessed. All of this means that your koi has a fantastic ability to think, learn, adapt, and develop a unique personality.

Koi are also very expensive for their ornamental and spiritual value, and as such are not typically thought of as a “delicacy.” They feed on a wide variety of foods, and tend to be rough in texture when cooked and oily or muddy in taste. It would not be a very good use of your time (or your pet’s life!) to spend time cooking it up for dinner, when there are much tastier and healthier options at your local grocery store or waiting to be hooked in your favorite local fishing hole.

Furthermore, understanding and empathizing with other cultures’ belief systems can be reason enough to keep this fish off of your plate. Many people all over the world have a great love and appreciation for the koi fish, and while not holding the same belief system, consuming it may feel disrespectful to your fellow humans who do share in it.

many koi fish swimming in a koi pond with a waterfall
Many argue that the aesthetic and mental health benefits of koi in a pond far outweigh their potential use as food.

Because of their ornamental and cultural value, koi fish are not cheap to buy. They are sold live in pet stores and also online with the intention of being enjoyed and cared for as pets in backyard ponds. If you decided to cook up your koi fish and eat it, you might get some satisfaction out of trying something new, but that experience is fleeting in comparison to getting to know your koi long-term. Enjoying your koi fish as it lives for years in your backyard pond will enrich your life for much longer and provide you with invaluable experience. Not only that, but cooking up a fish that potentially cost hundreds of dollars to buy seems like an awful waste.

Owning a koi pond is known to reduce stress and provide a relaxing and potentially spiritual experience. Just sitting at a pond’s edge and watching fish live their lives can be a surprisingly soothing and hypnotic experience. In today’s fast-paced world, perhaps more people need to be exposed to the calming effect of having pet koi fish to enjoy! While you may be curious to taste a koi fish, think of how much value this pet can add to your life as a living being.

Live & Let Live (To Eat Or Not to Eat?)

While in the end it comes down to personal opinion, a koi fish provides much more value as a living animal than it does as another item on a dinner plate (provided you aren’t starving).

As pets, koi fish can provide you with relaxation and joy for a significant portion of your lifetime. You can bond with them as you would with any other type of pet, and form a meaningful relationship. Cultivating a koi pond and enjoying the fish residents as pets has the potential to add immeasurable value to your life!

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