Poor basa, scorned and ridiculed, is known for being economical (aka cheap) and readily available, but also has a bad rep for being sandy, bland, tasteless and an insult to a gourmet’s palate. I’ve heard even the most elegant of souls go on sustained and profane rants about the horrors of basa. It is further demeaned by the use of “catfishing” as a term for dating scams. How much abuse can a poor fish take?
Okay, okay, okay. I get it. A lot of this disdain is warranted. Sometimes, if cooked properly, catfish loses its sandy texture and can be wonderfully tender. But alas, somehow it has become unjustly viewed as a poor person’s fish. Yes, it is economical, and yes, occasionally, as with any fish, you get a package that makes you swear off anything with fins, gills, big glassy eyes, and a tail, forever. But basa is still a handy thing to have on hand. Sort of like a loyal friend who doesn’t dress in designer clothes, but who is sincere and authentic. Trout and lobster swan around, secure in their reputation, while poor little catfish waits to be asked to dance.
I have a very simple recipe, so simple that foodie friends ask for it, thinking it a great secret. (Whenever anybody sinks to asking ME, an erratic and often nutty cook, for a recipe, it’s an event.) Olive oil, kosher salt, paprika and a bit of curry powder. Put it in the oven under foil, or in a skillet with the usual sizzle-cover-wait technique.
There is much to be said for the simplicity of basa. It sits in the freezer like an old pal – no pretensions, no drama – simply somebody waiting to be asked to the party. And if treated with kindness, it is easy on the palate. Sure, trout, lobster and mussels may take centre stage with their glamour, but good old catfish is comfortable company, too shy to claim the spotlight.
World cultures know this, as catfish, whoops, basa, is popular in many countries: fried in cornmeal (U.S.); fried or grilled and sold at street stalls with vegetables (Indonesia); cooked in paprika sauce and served with cottage cheese pasta (Hungary); catfish in noodle fish soup with lemongrass, ginger, and garlic (Myanmar); fried with vinegar and fish sauce (Philippines); the star of catfish pepper stew (Nigeria). But in Jewish cuisine, it is not considered kosher due to its lack of scales. Poor basa. Shunned again. Ouch.
No Matter. Catfish is cool. Basa is beautiful. There, I said it.