Basa beats catfish

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In False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World* there’s a chapter which covers “The Catfish War” between Vietnam and the United States in the early 2000s. Basically Vietnamese catfish were cheaper than American catfish, so American farmers got the government to force the Vietnamese to not label the fish catfish (it’s a different species from the American variant). So Vietnamese catfish are now termed “basa” in the United States. Interestingly this might have backfired, the author of False Economy claims that many American consumers ended up thinking basa were an exotic premium import. But here’s another reality: in blind taste tests people prefer Vietnamese catfish to American catfish.

I only mention this because I’ve been getting basa for a few weeks now. Today the supermarket was out of basa, but did have American catfish (where there used to be basa). So I got American catfish because I figured catfish is catfish. Well…American catfish kind of sucks compared to basa. I don’t find catfish meat repellent or anything, but basa has a much nicer flavor and smell than American catfish. It’s also easier to cook. And I don’t have a subtle palette; I use a lot of hot sauce, so I can tolerate a large range in flavor. There just isn’t any comparison. Perhaps it was a bad batch of catfish, but I’ve actually had catfish sandwiches and the like in New Orleans and Houston, and I think this was typical American catfish thinking back to that. Wikipedia said that people prefer basa to American catfish 3:1, but I would have expected 10:1.

* It’s a well written work which illustrates general economic principles with concrete contemporary examples, but is far inferior to Rondo Cameron’s A Concise Economic History of the World in terms of factual density.

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14 Comments

  1. I remember the catfish war — I hadn’t kept track of how it turned out. 
     
    American Agribusiness (big farm lobby) is trying something similar now, demanding country of origin labelling on meat sold in the US (rule took effect March 16, 2009). It’s killing the Canadian cattle and hog industries (meat packers would rather use all-American meat than go to the trouble of determining percentages). 
     
    Canada has filed a trade complaint.  
     
    The Vietnamese Catfish saga is an interesting precedent.

  2. I wonder whether they use different feeds in Vietnam. I believe most American catfish is farmed these days, likely using primarily soy and corn based feed. I would guess the Vietnames catfish eat differently. It can affect the flavor of the meat quite significantly…

  3. Life is like a box of chocolates,You never know what you’re gonna get from Forrest Gum

  4. There’s historical precedent of sorts for the catfish “war.” Back in the 1980′s there was quite a bit of hostility between long-established shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and Vietnamese immigrants who tried to break into the industry. If I’m not mistaken there was some actual violence, and plenty of vandalism. Eventually, farm-raised shrimp imports from Asia greatly weakened the entire Gulf shrimping industry and the hostility largely faded away.

  5. I wonder whether they use different feeds in Vietnam. I believe most American catfish is farmed these days, likely using primarily soy and corn based feed. 
     
    That’s what I thought. Better taste results from the animal eating what it’s designed to eat, for beef: 
     
    http://www.slate.com/id/2152674 
     
    After tasting butter from pastured cows, I can now eat it straight. Mmmm!

  6. Basa are rumored to be bred in unsightly conditions in the heavily polluted lower reaches of the Mekong. But hey, I agree, they taste good.

  7. Here in Texas the fish (which we love) has morphed from “Vietnamese catfish” to “basa” to “pangasius”. No idea why the last change, but probably lawyers were involved.

  8. pangasius is the species name. basa is i think derived from a vietnamese common name.

  9. There’s a world of difference in the taste of American farm-raised catfish and catfish caught in the “wild”. Also the way it’s cleaned and trimmed makes a difference. 
     
    I prefer crappie (pronounced “croppy”). I’m sure it has another name, but that’s what my uncles and cousins who do all the fishing call it. I’m very fortunate they like to share the catch.

  10. just want to add, not just taste. basa’s texture is much nicer. less “mealy.”

  11. Here’s the funny thing — a close relative of basa, Pangasius hypophthalmus is available in the U.S. aquarium trade as the “iridescent shark” … possibly from the same mass-aquaculture facilities that send them off to American dinner plates as swai (actually, what with intentional mislabeling, a good deal might be sold as basa too).  
     
    The aquarium-bound specimens are, pound-for-pound, a great deal more pricey than those destined to end up as frozen fillets. I’d guess farmer investment to be comparatively low, too, since the fish don’t have to be raised to eating size; the target aquarist demographic is clueless impulse-buyers who pick up 8 cm juveniles without realizing or caring that they’ll attain a meter with adequate care (unlikely, to say the least). Many of the survivors end up grotesquely stunted … or dumped on pet store doorsteps.

  12. I’m going to have to try them someday. I’m quite a fan of seafood.

  13. wikipedia – Made in Germany
     
    The label was originally introduced in Britain by the Merchandise Marks Act 1887, to mark foreign produce more obviously, as British society considered foreign produce to be inferior to domestic produce, and tried to get buyers to adhere to the concept of ‘buying British’. 
     
    In 1894, however, the German Reichstag’s commission already reported that after suffering slight losses, German manufacturers soon found the label to be of good use since they could distinguish themselves better from the British manufacturers. This led to more and more manufacturers voluntarily applying the label, and not even World War I, in which marks were mandatory in Britain in order to boycott the Central Powers countries’ products, could dent the growing popularity of the mark. 
     
    The term Made in Germany was soon associated with product reliability, quality and even perfection.

  14. M. Mohling: 
     
    I agree wholeheartedly. There’s even a very strong case to be made that English (and American and, likely, French, too) efforts to discriminate 
    against German manufactures on their respective home markets was the chief cause of WW I and its continuation in the form of WW II.

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