Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I Actually Ate That: Basa.

If you are ever in Houston and like fish, check out the Kemah Boardwalk. They have a restaurant there called "The Aquarium." It delivers what it promises: a giant aquarium makes up the centerpiece of each level, with smaller aquaria along the sides and a pillar aquarium along the stairwell. O.K., plug over.

They also had an exotic Asian fish on the menu that, as it turns out, is debatably-legal:


The "whitefish" hidden beneath a mountain  of fruit and breadcrumbs was a Vietnamese fish called basa (Pangasius bocourti). It's native to the Mekong River delta. This fish is wholly herbivorous, making it actually a bit healthier and easier to farm than most fish on the market. Several other fish may be erroneously labeled as basa, so have your wits about you at the fish market. Basa are also called "panga," "bocourti," or "river cobbler," so...just ask the right questions.

Here's where the sketchiness comes in: basa cannot be legally labeled as catfish. (The menu called it "Asian whitefish;" I pressed for more details.)  Even though they are technically catfish, there have been a few SNAFU's when it comes to labeling this oriental fish.  People in the U.S. and Britain seem to have a really hard time deciding what to name this fish.

The U.S. has a particular concern with this one. There was a "catfish war" in the early 2000's. In short, the Vietnamese were accused of flooding the market with basa and marketing it as "catfish" - also the name for the whiskered fish native to North America. Catfish farmers and the USDA were worried that basa might interrupt the profits of the native American catfish, so basa sellers were forever banned from using that word. They have to use other words instead.

Luckily, a rose by any other name indeed tastes as good. The taste if largely neutral to most people (another selling point), but 75% of taste-testers preferred basa to catfish.Whether it is ethical or not is another matter; I am unsure on the veracity of this thread, but given what we know about factory farming fish in Asia, no surprises there. The U.S. is not any better in this regard; nearly all fish farms have skeletons in their closets. Sorry, catfish farmers; best be graceful in defeat this round. 

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