Last night I wanted something light and sweet for dinner. I walked into my usual store, browsing the fish counter and saw something I hadn’t tried before on sale. I asked the fish guy a little bit about this beautiful looking basa filet. He told me it was “just like catfish,” but not. I figured I would give it a go.
I have discussed the issue of marketers changing the names of fish to make them more marketable in some of my other articles about seafood. The naming of the “basa filet” came after my days as a fish monger, so that upon buying this mild, meaty white fish in the store, I had to do a little research to figure out how this species of fish, which looked and tasted remarkably like catfish (kosher people beware), ended up with its trendy new name.
The Catfish War
In 2002, the United States accused Vietnam of glutting the American fish market with its catfish. They charged the Vietnamese importers, subsidized by Vietnam’s government, with unfair competition. With pressures from the U.S. catfish industry, the United States Congress passed a law in 2003 preventing the imported fish from being labelled as catfish and imposed tariffs on the imported fish (though it still remains one of the most affordable fish on the counter). Under the restriction, only the Pangasius ictaluridae, just one of the many families of catfish, can be sold as true catfish. And there we have it: the birth of the basa filet.
Oddly, a professor of food science and technology at Mississippi State University conducted a study of 58 people from the university to compare the qualities like appearance, aroma, taste, texture and overall liking of the frozen imports to the farm-raised channel catfish from local grocery stores. Three-quarters of the 58 testers and regular consumers of catfish in the blind tasting preferred basa.
It is amazing how a small choice like picking an unknown type of fish leads to the discovery of such a huge political and economic history. It is becoming increasingly important to know from where your food comes.
A lot of times in the summers, when I was working at the fish store, a family in the community would go on a deep sea fishing trip and sell us their catch. In addition to the 3am runs to the Fulton Fish Market twice a week, we would haul thirty pound sturgeons or tuna to the back of the store in order to prepare them for sale. I loved knowing exactly where it came from and how it was caught. Living in a big city eliminates that kind of familiarity with the food that I had grown so accustomed to being raised in a farming town that also lies so close to the coast.
Despite its complex history, I prepared this basa fish very simply, letting its mild flavor speak for itself. This fish is spectacular.
- 2 half-pound basa or catfish filet
- 1 small tomato cubed
- 1/2 onion diced
- 1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes chopped very finely
- 1 handful dill
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 pinch fresh pepper
- 1 pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 pinch oregano
- 1 pinch rosemary
- 1 dash of olive oil
Preheat oven to 350F. Combine the spices and sundried tomato in a small cup and distribute them evenly on both sides of the filet. Lay a bed of diced onions, fresh tomatoes and dill on top of the filet. Drizzle with a small amount of olive oil. Pop in the oven for 30 minutes.
Serve alone, over rice and/or with a vegetable.