Controversy to Cuisine: "Maach" Ado About Basa In India!

Basa fish, a species of catfish belonging to the Pangasius Bocourti genus, is slowly making its way to Indian plates due to its versatility, affordability, and easy availability. Initially unimpressed by this almost-bland fish, the now ubiquitous basa fish, which is white, light, and flaky, won over diners and restaurateurs alike for its neutral taste similar to cod and haddock but without the high price tag.

During a recent conversation, my chef friend, who hails from Kerala, expressed disbelief upon seeing my Instagram stories and discovering that I had used basa fish in my meen moilee. He asked, perplexed, "You are actually using basa fish in your meen moilee?" Despite the fact that the dish was prepared perfectly with a creamy curry-leaf-ginger-onion-infused moilee, he seemed unimpressed. I explained to him that I had originally intended to purchase seer or kingfish steaks from an online meat purchasing app store but was unsuccessful in my search. As a result, I came across clean and deboned basa fillets on the app, which I decided to order instead.

I caught myself nearly feeling guilty as I disclosed my recent use of basa fish in my Thai curries and pan-Asian stir-fries. I went on to explain that basa's flavor profile is mild and neutral, similar to that of tofu, which allowed it to absorb the bold flavors of pan-Asian dishes, such as a green curry base, quite effortlessly. Moreover, it was an added bonus that basa checked off the boxes of being low in calories while high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Despite my explanation, I could tell that the chef remained unimpressed.

Before we continue, let me give you some context. Over a decade ago, Vietnamese basa fish flooded the Indian markets around 2010. It became a popular choice in food and beverage establishments due to its affordability and year-round availability. This was largely due to Mr. Yogesh Grover, the director of Empire Foods, an importer of frozen seafood and meats, who ordered the first consignment of six tonnes of this "white fish." Mr. Grover had enjoyed eating basa in restaurants across Europe and America, and it soon became a permanent fixture in Indian cuisine.

The white, light, and flaky fish, whose taste resembled cod and haddock without its high price tag, won the hearts and purses of restaurateurs and diners alike. However, the more discerning chefs and patrons who still swore by their bhetki, pomfret, pearl spot, murrel, and kingfish looked down upon basa, as it was considered to be at the absolute lower end of the fish spectrum. And it was only used in middling, small, and street food joints by these five-star and gourmet chef and patron establishments (for lack of a better word).

I remember having a conversation with the same chef about how I would never ever order basa at a restaurant, and here I was, of course, a good decade later, actually cooking basa in my kitchen! Obviously, it amounted to sacrilege of sorts.

A couple of years ago, during my husband's book launch in Kolkata, we had a memorable experience. Noted filmmaker Shyam Benegal was scheduled to do the launch, and after we checked into the hotel, we decided to have lunch at the hotel's all-day restaurant. And there, ‘Shyam Babu’, as he is fondly known, was most appalled to find the buffet spread featuring the famed fish fry of Kolkata but passing off basa fish in place of the usual bhetki 'maach'. In his famous baritone, he called for the restaurant manager and expressed his dissatisfaction, stating that it would be sacrilegious if he left Kolkata without eating bhetki. The manager quickly brought a chef who was a big fan of the filmmaker and promised to serve something delicious in no time. Eventually, crisp bhetki fillets, accompanied by kasundi, lemon, and onion wedges, were served, and only then was the filmmaker satisfied.

Fast-forward to 2023. While I can't vouch for Mr. Benegal's opinion, I can confidently say that I have come to accept and appreciate basa fish, particularly the boneless, low-fat, and odourless fillets. Plus, most online meat and seafood stores offer basa fillets year-round at highly competitive prices. What's not to love?

Basa fish, a type of catfish from the Pangasius Bocourti genus, are indigenous to freshwater in Southeast Asia, specifically the Mekong and Chao Praya basins in mainland Southeast Asia. At first, Vietnamese basa faced some scrutiny due to concerns about drug residue and potentially harmful bacteria.

The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) had even banned the import of Vietnamese basa in 2007 over mercury contamination risks, as the Mekong Delta, which is the original native of basa, is considered to be polluted with carcinogenic chemicals from the drugs that are dumped here, and fish farmers then use chemicals to kill the parasites that affect the fish. It was then contested that it was the US catfish lobby that was trying to whine away the competition.

Today, every five-star hotel and standalone restaurant worth its name in India uses basa in its kitchen. Like the Park Hotel Hyderabad, where executive chef Thimma Reddy will use only the best murrel for his bestseller Andhra Chapa Vepudu but will not hesitate to use basa fish in his Oriental starters as his diners prefer this boneless fish that is affordable, available, and popular.

Similar with foodpreneur Sarita Sarkar, a true-blue Bengali who will perhaps not cook or eat basa at home (besides not caring for its taste, she’s allergic to it), but will make Sarkar’s Kitchen’s bestseller Chilli Fish with basa, as she just can't afford to make bhetki into finger-sized starters. She would much rather put basa on her buffet spreads as it is more economical, as the yield per kg of basa is much higher than that of bhetki, pomfret, or even rohu. There is just one central bone, which, after being removed, allows the fish to be filleted easily.

But economics aside, if she used 10 kg of bhetki in a day, she would use a similar quantity of basa in a week. Like she says, basa should have no presence in a Bengali restaurant, but one has to pander to local demand as customers, including young Bengalis, are preferring boneless fish.

According to Chef Reddy, basa farming in India, with the maximum output coming from Odisha, West Bengal, and Andhra Pradesh, allows for quick breeding and harvesting, resulting in ample supplies. While he may not be certain about bhetki output, there are no concerns regarding the supply chain for basa.

It remains to be seen whether basa is completely safe for consumption, despite its benefits of being a low-calorie, high protein, and cost-effective option. However, until a final verdict is reached, the popularity of basa is likely to persist. As for me, it is only through occasional use and reliable online meat or fish purchasing apps that I can get my basa fix!