Another night out on the town: cognac and conversation. There's a pause when the main course is set down with a flourish. Lemon garlic marinated grilled Vietnamese Basa on a bed of pea puree, scattered with bright roasted cherry tomatoes. The fish is delicate, with the subtle sweetness of the type of river fish Bengalis love. Its firm texture makes it ideal for grilling, especially since it doesn't have the intense fishiness that marks some varieties of seafood.
Originating from Vietnam, Basa's economical pricing, easy-going adaptability and year-round availability has encouraged chefs and home cooks all over the world to translate it into local dishes. The Pangasius Bocourti, is reared mainly in the Mekong Delta of South-Eastern Asia. Although we know it as Basa, like a particularly sneaky Piscean Mata Hari, it's broken through borders in various guises and caused almost as much of a political furore.
In the U.K., where it's called the Vietnamese Cobbler, it had the ‘The National Federation of Fish Friers' up in arms. (And don't you love the image that conjures up.) According to the London-based Sunday Times newspaper, “in more and more of Britain's 11,000 fish-and-chip shops they are the cause of a culinary scandal as some unscrupulous friers — albeit a minority — try to pass off the Vietnamese river cobbler as traditional British cod.”
Since Basa is significantly cheaper than most fish of this quality, it caused an uproar in America too. President George W. Bush even signed a one-year provision declaring that “only bottom feeders raised in the U.S. could be sold as catfish” according to the Time magazine, which added that the measure was “specifically aimed at competition from Vietnamese farmers… Never mind that ichthyologists have found that U.S. catfish and Vietnamese Basa are virtually indistinguishable genetically. Never mind that importers of Basa defy anyone in a blind taste test to distinguish their product from U.S. catfish. This battle isn't about science or succulence so much as it is about politics and commerce.”
To add to Vietnamese woes, the fish was then put on the World Wildlife Fund's influential red list, a consumer guidance manual, and Europeans started eating less. (However, the Pangasius has been recently taken off the list, after WWF was convinced its production meets the stringent quality standards of the E.U., Australia, the U.S. and Japan.)
It's likely that all these challenges helped propel the fish towards the Indian market, which is embracing it enthusiastically. Yogesh Grover, director of Empire Foods says they launched the fish in India about two years ago. It took about a year for the product to gain acceptability, but they're now supplying a huge number of hotels and catering units with the fillets. He estimates India currently consumes about 100 tonnes of the fish every month.
It's so popular that local fishermen are cashing in on the trend by renaming local fish Basa. In Andhra it's a fish called pungus, which has been retitled the ‘Indian Basa.' There's also a pink Basa that's been surfacing at fish markets.
The real Basa comes in the form of fillets from Vietnam. Over there the fish is taken live, in boats, to huge processing halls. The system is so slick and streamlined it takes just one hour from reception to cold storage. After this the frozen fillets are stacked on a ship, on which they travel for a month or so to reach India. The cold chain must stay unbroken, which is why they're primarily available only to the big hotels right now.
Very little is wasted. We hear the bones are used to make the popular Vietnamese fish sauce. All the bits that are not used go into fish meal, which is used to feed poultry.
Chef Praveen Anand of Sheraton Park Hotel & Towers suggests you eat it grilled, steamed or fried. Since the flavour is so demure, he says it's rather bland in curries. Empire Foods lists recipes such as Szechuan Basa, Coconut Fried Basa with Chillies and Chepala Vepudu Basa Fish, Andhra style. The internet teems with other ideas, from Pangasius Au Gratin to Chinese Steamed Basa. For with this fish, little gets lost in translation.