Andrea Liceaga, Food Science, cooked chorizo sausage on a griddle in one of Purdue University's food science labs, sending wafts of cayenne through the air.
The sausage is one of Liceaga's favorite types. While growing up in Mexico, she ate it mixed with scrambled eggs or in a cheese fondue.
But this batch was no ordinary chorizo.
Liceaga made it from Asian carp. The Purdue food scientist is researching and testing ways to get more from underutilized fish.
"This is something that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill," she said.
Liceaga isn't the only one looking to redirect the invasive species from Midwest waterways onto consumers' plates. Illinois officials recently launched a marketing effort to change the image of the Asian carp and educate people on ways to eat and enjoy the fish.
The state is looking to Asian carp as a product that could be distributed to food pantries and soup kitchens as an inexpensive source of protein. Officials are still trying to figure out the best way to serve it and how to overcome the initial distaste most people have upon hearing the bottom-feeding fish's name.
For the record, the Asian carp chorizo sausage that Liceaga cooked up this week had no fishy taste or bony texture -- at least none that this reporter could detect.
To make it, Liceaga put the Asian carp -- caught from the Wabash River by another Purdue researcher -- through a mincer to remove the fine bones. Then she added salt, vinegar, sugar, cayenne and vegetable shortening before casing the sausage in a synthetic wrap. Traditional chorizo uses similar spices but is made with pork.
Liceaga avoided using a sausage casing made from animal product to keep her links as a viable option for vegetarians.
The result: A tasty sausage substitute that's high in protein and low in fat.
"And it's otherwise going to be thrown away," Liceaga said.
The Asian carp that fishermen so willingly discard in this region actually refers to several species of fish. The two types most common in the Wabash River and in surrounding states are bighead and silver carp. They were brought from Asia to the United States in the 1970s to help clean agricultural tanks. They escaped into the Mississippi River and have spread north ever since.
Asian carp don't eat other fish, so nutritionists and food scientists tout them as high in Omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury.
But Bryan Abbott, who owns Abbott's Outdoors bait shop in Lafayette, said the guys he knows who catch them aren't serving them up for dinner. It's partly because of the carp's reputation for feeding on plankton and algae, but around here, Abbott said, river pollution stigma is a major deterrent.
"Everybody believes the Wabash is so polluted that you can't even step in the water," he said. "I try and tell people that I've never heard of a single person getting sick or gravely ill from eating something out of there."
But Abbott thinks it will be a challenge to get Lafayette-area residents to eat Asian carp on a regular basis.
Has he tried it?
Reuben Goforth, a professor in Purdue's Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, tracks the spread of Asian carp as part of his research and in conjunction with state and federal agencies. He said the number of Asian carp in local waterways is growing and will continue to do so.
"Does it mean they're at numbers like in the Illinois rivers? At this point, no," Goforth said. "But at any level it's good to harvest them and use them for food."
Doug Keller, aquatic habitat coordinator for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, cited two primary obstacles in getting people to eat Asian carp -- bones and stigma.
"When I've asked fishermen, they've said, '(Heck) no, I wouldn't eat something like that,' " he said. "It's hard to blame them because when people see these things, they're often jumping into their boats, sliming their stuff, bleeding all over the place. And they don't look like normal fish."
That didn't stop Keller from frying up 50 pounds of Asian carp at the Taste of the Wild cookout in August at the State Fair.
"And a lot of people really liked it," he said.
Keller said the fish's firm flesh more closely resembles chicken than other fish and has such a mild flavor that it will easily taste like whatever spices or batter are put on it.
Louisiana chef Philippe Parola has become a national advocate for the fish and has renamed it "silverfin" in recipes and on the menu. Chicago chef Phillip Foss was among the first to serve it in a high-end establishment there. It's easy to use in minced form as a beef substitute, he said.
"Make a seafood Bolognese sauce that everyone will love. Then surprise them, that they actually just ate Asian carp," Foss said.
He and others point out that another now popular fish, the Chilean sea bass, was rebranded from its original name -- Patagonian toothfish.
Liceaga is planning another experiment -- Asian carp hamburger patties.
She's also using the fish -- once it's processed into a protein powder -- as a fortifying agent for corn tortillas, a product she said holds a lot of promise for delivering key nutritional needs to underserved populations in other parts of the world. The powder, called fish protein hydrolysate, adds antioxidants and amino acids -- particularly lysine -- to foods.
Although she and assisting graduate students are still working to perfect the texture of the fortified tortillas, Liceaga said it fared well in a recent blind taste test on campus.
People who tried them liked the Asian carp-fortified one better, Liceaga said. "They didn't notice a difference in taste.
"This has got a lot of promise."
Contributing: The Associated Press