Kiến Thức Chung

Swai / Basa / Tra – Vietnamese Catfish – Shark Catfish

Swai / Basa / Tra – Vietnamese Catfish – Shark Catfish

Whole Vietnamese Catfish
[Basa (US); Cá Ba sa (Viet);
  |   Swai (US); Pla Sawai (Thai); Cá Tra (Viet),
Iridescent Shark, Striped Catfish, Striper (Trader Joe’s);
  |   Cá Ba sa (Viet);
]

On the Internet, there are more outright lies about these fish than just
about any other food item – lies spread mainly by unethical
catfish farmers who, faced with competition, chose smear campaigns and
political manipulation rather than improving their methods to compete.
See Catfish Wars below.

Is it safe to eat? Yes, it has been confirmed as safe as American
catfish by independent testing labs, major food distributors (and their
insurance companies), and the U.S. Federal Government. They are very low
in mercury and are also also easier on the environment than most farmed
fish. They are omnivores and can be grown on mostly vegetable matter
rather than the wild caught fish and crustaceans many other farmed fish
require.

Vietnamese catfish, a genus known as “Shark Catfish” from their shape,
are quite different from American Channel Catfish. It takes quite a bit
of careful trimming to make fillets that are interchangeable with
American fillets. They still vary slightly, being wider, thinner and
more delicate in flavor and texture. In the Mekong these fish can grow
to over 3 feet long, but farmed fish are harvested much smaller. The
photo specimen, , was 17-1/4 inches long and weighed
2 pounds 6 ounces.

Two varieties are widely farmed, Basa ()
and Swai / Tra (), but what is shipped to
the U.S. is mostly Swai. Basa is preferred in Vietnam but, since U.S.
buyers don’t care, the faster growing Swai is shipped. Swai fillets
are thinner and a little coarser than Basa.

More on Catfish.


Commercial Swai fillet
Pictured to the left is the form you will find sold in markets
here in North America – nicely cleaned and frozen fillets. This form
is described by exporters as: “belly off, fat off, red meat off”.

Fillets can weigh anywhere between 2 ounces to over 11 ounces, but
they are sold in bags containing only a single size. These fillets can
be used in place of regular catfish, or for many fish recipes not
traditionally used with catfish. Most Americans don’t even know Swai
is catfish. The fillets are light in flavor (just a bit too light in
my opinion), and stay firm enough for most methods of cooking where
fillets are called for.

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Swai fillet parts

Whole Basa

Most Americans have never seen a Basa or Swai in it’s natural form.
Nor had I, but back in early 2011 I felt myself fortunate to find
frozen ones in a very large Asian market here in Los Angeles. Now,
over a year later, they are easily found on ice in the Philippine
markets. The 2011 model was very skillfully factory cleaned by making
a small cut under the jaw. For the photo and uncleaned weight I
reversed this by stuffing the fish with wet paper towels.

Like any other catfish, Basa and Swai have no scales (so are not
kosher). They are fairly easy to clean and fillet, though there is a
heavy bone extending from the top of the head up to the dorsal fin.
It’s best to fillet from the top down to the backbone, then over the
backbone from the tail forward. Cut the rib cage away from the
backbone with kitchen shears. I then shave the ribs off the belly
with the filleting knife, if I have a use for the fatty belly.
There are no centerline pin bones to deal with – the filets will be
entirely bone free.

The photo shows the fillet cut from the Basa at the top of the page,
including the first trimming cuts. At the top of the photo is the part
that is further prepared for export to North America. Bottom left is
the belly, which is mostly fat and not particularly appetizing. Lining
the inside of the belly are additional large deposits of fat, some of
which is shown to the lower right. In Vietnam, local uses are found
for these offcuts.

Skin Side of fillet
For many uses you will want to remove the skin, because it has a
stronger taste and shrinks significantly when heated, enough to curl
the fillets. Skinning these fillets is very easy by the long knife
and cutting board method – the skin is strong and cooperative.

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For some uses, particularly catfish soups, the skin is left on.
In Vietnam the famous Sweet and Sour Catfish Soup is made with cross
cut steaks with skin and bones. I usually cut up skin-on fillets for
these soups.

To the left is shown the skin side of a skin-off fillet, displaying
the considerable amount of “red meat”. This has a stronger, more oily
taste, and is removed for the fillet to be in the form usually
exported. I don’t know how they do that, but they do a very nice job
of it. For most catfish uses I prefer the red meat left on so the
fillet has more of a catfish taste. These days I usually buy a frozen
fish that has been cleaned and beheaded, but is otherwise whole with
skin on. These are available from the huge San Gabriel Superstore
here in Los Angeles.

I was surprised to find the head, bones and fins simmered for 1/2
hour made a quite serviceable stock without a strong flavor.

The Catfish Wars

Seeing competition from Vietnam, American catfish farmers organized an
expedition to that country to gather dirt for a propaganda campaign. They
found no dirt. As one catfish man said, “We went expecting to find catfish
raised in polluted waters and processed in primitive facilities. That’s
not what we found, and we’re scared to death”.

With the actual truth solidly against them by their own admission,
American catfish farmers have proven less ethical than even the Congress
critters they seek to “influence”. They have succeeded in getting
legislation passed interfering with imports of Vietnamese fish, though
that success has turned into a sort of comedy of errors. They have also
spread lying articles all over the Internet, some so absurd only Tea
Party members could believe them. Their advertising campaigns have been
denounced as deception and half truths even by the U.S. Government.

Some Internet articles have even played the “mercury in fish” card.
Mercury is a problem only with large predatory fish living in the oceans –
and not much of a problem even there. Vietnamese catfish is a freshwater
fish and not a predator, so mercury is not a concern.

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At the behest of the catfish farmers, Congress passed a law that only
“Channel Catfish” could be called “Catfish” in the United States,
preventing some 2000 other species of catfish from being called catfish.
Distributors briefly called Vietnamese catfish “China Sole”, but that
was a bit deceptive, so they settled on “Basa”. That was also a little
inaccurate, because what was being shipped here was mostly Swai.
Americans can’t tell the two apart, but the Vietnamese can, and keep the
Basa for themselves. Vietnamese catfish is now packaged and sold mostly
as “Swai”, which is accurate.

The major effect of this name change is that Americans who think they
don’t like catfish now buy this fish and enjoy it – but it gets even
worse for the catfish farmers. The Chinese started raising Channel Cat for
export to the United States. As is usual in Chinese practice, the product
was often adulterated. This caused the Feds to require extra testing (at
extra cost). Knowing the Chinese would find a way to sneak their fish in
disguised as American raised catfish, the testing is required for
all catfish. This means added cost for American catfish growers
as well.

Now, guess who’s catfish doesn’t need to pay the inspection cost
because it can’t be called “Catfish”. So the catfish farmers went back to
Congress asking for the Vietnamese to be forced to call their product
“Catfish”. They also asked for import control to be transferred from the
FDA to the USDA, a process that could have stopped Vietnamese imports for
up to three years. Both these efforts have failed – so far.

Of course the American catfish industry is actually suffering, and
production has declined, but it’s not primarily from Vietnamese
competition. The main cause is much higher feed costs resulting from
Congress’s brain dead “Food into SUV Fuel” ethanol program.

sf_catvnz* 110310   –   www.clovegarden.com

©Andrew Grygus – [email protected] – Photos on this
page not otherwise credited are © cg1
Linking to and non-commercial use of this page permitted

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