The strange, delicious tale of the basa



The fish that’s taking over the world fakes it in Delhi; but under steam, reveals a superb pedigree.

Let me tell you the strange tale of Pangasius hypophthalmus -in a paragraph.

For centuries, this strange creature kept to itself in the riverine depths of south-western Vietnam. Then, the trade engine of the flattened world of the 21st century dragged it out of the Mekong river delta, plonked it in a fish farm and passed it off as something it is not. Via Kolkata, it finally wound up in my New Delhi kitchen, where, in a bamboo steamer imported from Chinatown in the North American city of Seattle, it became my lunch.

If this isn’t globalization, I don’t know what is.

My personal discovery of the Pangasiidae family began a few months ago in a restaurant where for the first time I ate lovely pepper-encrusted basa. For those of you who are as ignorant as I was then, the most well-known member of this family is the basa, a delicate, light fish with flaky, white flesh. In one remarkable decade, the basa has become-globally, and now in India as well-the fish of choice for fillets. Vietnam controls more than 99% of the basa trade, most of it farmed to keep pace with skyrocketing demand.

Now, if you have followed this column, you will know that I come from a family that abhors river fish and shuns fillets. But, alas, in these rushed times, balancing profession with parenting, I succumb frequently to the lure of a phone call to the fishmonger who does home delivery-and since this is Delhi, populated by Punjabis who don’t really know their fish, he offers only fillets.

One day, my mysterious fishmonger-he’s only a voice at the end of a phone line-offered me basa. The same, exotic basa that I ate at fancy restaurants? Well, at `350 per kg, it wasn’t very cheap, but these were fillets and my fish of choice, surmai (kingfish) and pomfret, with bones, often cost as much.

Since then, I confess, I have bought basa often-or at least what I thought was basa.

When I started work on this column, I took, for the first time, a closer look at the label on the sealed plastic packet that holds the basa. I realized I was being fooled, as perhaps were many Indian consumers.

My suspicions began with the brand name on the packet. It said, “IFB Basa”, with the “IFB” font hijacked from the distinctive “IFB” of the washing machine company. The “IFB” on my fish referred to IFB Agro Industries Ltd of the East Kolkata Township, the importers, who sourced the fish from Long Xuyen town in Vietnam’s An Giang Province. The label said: Best before November 4, 2012.

The long shelf life isn’t surprising: Basa stays well and when unfrozen feels very fresh indeed. But here was the rub. In grand fashion, the label said the basa’s name was Pangasius hypophthalmus. Well, well. A little research revealed that the fish I had was from the same family as the basa but wasn’t actually basa. The basa is Pangasius bocourti, an iridescent shark that isn’t a shark at all but a catfish. My fake basa is also a shark catfish, and since I am now not sure if I’ve been eating the right family member, I don’t really mind being fooled.

I turned my attention to cooking the fake basa. I don’t think dunking it in Goan curries or frying it, as I have done before, is a great idea. Long-lasting yet delicate, basa and its cousins appear to demand more creativity, a lighter touch, as it were.

So, I rummaged through my unused-kitchen-implements shelf and dragged out a magnificent bamboo steamer that I had pressured my in-laws to buy more than five years ago. What could impart a lighter touch to my Vietnamese friend than steaming?

My experiments with the fake basa are detailed below. I am happy to report they were successful. I think the key to cooking shark catfishes is to use the minimum possible spices and not smother them, as we tend to do. I am sure the real, river basa tastes even better, but to me, the fake worked well enough.

Common cooking note: The three recipes involve steaming. Steaming time depends on the thickness of the fish. A piece of fish weighing 100-150g about a half-inch thick should take no more than 15 minutes. I used a bamboo steamer (sitting atop a steel vessel of boiling water). You can steam in anything with perforations, like a sieve, or a rice cooker. Wrap individual steaks in banana leaves; you can also wrap in foil and bake. I steamed all three fish steaks together. They are very light and will barely serve two people.

Fake basa with soy and galangal
Serves 1-2

Ingredients
100-150g fish steak
K-inch piece of galangal (Thai ginger), fine juliennes
1 green chilli, slit in two and partially deseeded
K tsp coriander seeds, roughly pounded
1 tsp soy sauce
Salt (very little, since soy is also salty)

Method
Marinate the fish in soy and salt for 1 hour. Place one piece of chilli under and the other over the steak. So too with the galangal and pounded coriander seeds. Lay the steak on a piece of banana leaf, large enough to fold over into a parcel. Wrap the fish in the leaf and secure with a toothpick. Steam.

Fake basa with sesame and mustard tempering
Serves 1-2

Ingredients
100-150g fish steak
K clove of garlic, chopped fine
N tsp red chilli powder (or less, it should be just enough for flavour and bite)
4-5 curry leaves
N tsp sesame seeds
N tsp mustard seeds
Salt

Method
Rub chilli powder, salt and garlic on both sides of the steak. In a little oil, splutter the sesame and mustard seeds. When they pop, add the curry leaves, mix briefly, take off heat and pour atop the fish. Wrap in banana leaf. Steam.

Fake basa with coastal spice
Serves 1-2

Ingredients
100-150g fish steak
N tsp chilli powder
V tsp turmeric
Squeeze of lime
Salt

Method
Rub the steak with chilli, salt and turmeric powders. Squeeze lime. Marinate for 1 hour. Wrap in banana leaf. Steam.

This is a column on easy inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is editor-at-large, Hindustan Times.

Write to Samar at ourdailybread@livemint.com

Wrap the marinated fish in bamboo parcels secured with toothpicks and arrange in banana leaves

The fish steams away in the steamer atop a pot of boiling water

fish with galangal and soy after steaming

seasame and mustard seed fish before steaming

seasame and mustard seed fish after steaming

fish with chilli and turmeric after steaming

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