Basa Fish: A welcome impostor
By Chef Cristian Feher
I walked into the seafood store the other day to pick up some Salmon and Tuna for Sushi. I always enjoy looking through the glass and seeing all the different varieties of fish. I have been fascinated by fish ever since I was a kid. I can spend hours just looking at fish, whether it be at the pet store, at the aquarium, fishing magazines or when I'm fishing or snorkeling in the ocean. This interest has come in very handy in my career as a Chef in getting to know the who's-who list of fish. The fish monger, however, is not as enthusiastic as I am, and usually becomes quite impatient with my loitering back and forth across his displays.
I spotted some familiar looking white fish fillets next to the Salmon being sold as "Swai Fillets". I smiled to myself and wondered, "How many more names can this fish possibly have?" I recognized the Basa fillets right away, and asked the fish monger (for my own amusement) to tell me about this fish. Instantly he went on a sales pitch about this new, rare and delicate fish from Australia called Swai and suggested that (at $5.95 per pound - dirt cheap by Floridian seafood prices - but expensive for what it is) I must try it. I then remarked how "I can get these Basa fillets in Toronto for $1.99 per pound!" He sunk down for a few moments and then confessed, like every contraband dealer eventually does!
The real name for this under cover fish is Basa (actually, its Scientific name is Pangasius Bocourti) It is a white, almost odorless, firm fleshed fish. It is a beautiful fish to cook with, as its firm flesh holds together well and is yet delicate enough to incorporate into fine recipes. You can fry it, broil it, batter it, poach it, and incorporate it into rice dishes (such as Paella), Sauces and Soups. (Now I sound like Bubba Gump!) Most of it comes from fish farms and rivers in Vietnam and recently it's coming from Australia too. But this is the type of fish that I would rather expect to find at a knock-off market in Hong Kong next to the fake Gucci wallets and Armani Suits. It is a fish that, due to its wide versatility in texture and taste, can and has been passed off as many other fish and goes by several different names. I have personally bought this fish as Basa, Smooth Dory, Swai, Catfish, Vietnamese Catfish, and Pangasius. And I have been the knowing victim of Chefs trying to pass it off as Snapper, Bass, and Black Cod. I'm sure it goes out in restaurants all over the world, dressed in many different costumes by many different names. It's the quality of this knock-off that is its saving grace.
When first introduced into the American market they threatened to put the cat fishing industry out of business by being sold as "Catfish" to unsuspecting buyers. If the American cat fishing industry hadn't fought back so swiftly and sternly to boycott the sale of basa as "Catfish", I'm sure they would have been finished. To tell you the truth, I would rather eat a mild tasting, fried Basa fillet any day than a stringy, mud flavoured cat fish fillet! But I guess you have to defend your local crop - don't get me started on the blunders we have committed to keep the American corn farmers in business (High Fructose Corn Syrup, and Ethanol but to name a couple).
In short, I am actually very much a fan of Basa. Not only because of the exciting, under cover, knock-off life it lives, but also because when push comes to shove, its quality is superior to many other fish worth two or three times as much. So the next time you're in your local fish store, give Basa a try. You won't be disappointed!