Malwani Aswad is a tiny seafood joint in north Mumbai. It doesn’t feature in the food pages of newspapers — despite it being, I am told, one of Sachin Tendulkar’s favourite restaurants — nor have I heard ‘foodies’ talking about its ‘to-die-for’ food. As its name suggests, Malwani Aswad serves food from in and around Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district: pomfret fry, crabs, surmai curry, ravas, tisrya (clams) masala, along with rice or bhakri or vades. The chairs and tables are old, the walls could do with whitewash, but, according to me, the food is excellent.
A couple of months ago, regular patrons of Malwani Aswad were in for a surprise. A new dish had been added to the whiteboard hung on the wall: basa masala. The catfish from Vietnam had breached the final barrier, I thought. It is one thing to be offered basa in upmarket joints serving continental food, but, it’s quite another to see it on the menu of a traditional Malwani joint.
Basa is almost ubiquitous in restaurants and supermarkets in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, and its rapid spread has puzzled many, especially in a country with an abundant supply of flavoursome local fish — both sea fish and river fish — and, in which, each community swears by a particular kind of fish (the Maharashtrians love their bombil, the Bengalis can’t stop talking about hilsa).
Manoj Shetty, city chef at the Impresario Group (Salt Water Café, Smoke House Deli), lists some possible reasons for basa’s popularity: it is cheaper compared to other frozen fish and can be used in many dishes and in varied ways (basa costs about Rs 150 per kg while surmai costs Rs 400 per kg). Anirudhya Roy, executive chef at the Taj Land’s End, in Mumbai, suggests the abundance of basa may be another reason you see it in so many restaurant kitchens. India imports about 5,000 tonnes of basa every year. “Basa is grown in one of the most suitable environments for fish farming anywhere in the world,” says Roy. “The Mekong River, in southeast Asia, has one of the largest consistent flows of fresh, clean water on the planet. It is one of the cleanest of the world’s large rivers.” Basa also, as Roy explains, has a far “weaker” taste than most fish, and is therefore more palatable for diners who are not accustomed to eating seafood. Diners who are fish lovers, though, find it bland and without character.
It is because of this “neutral” taste that some chefs shun basa. Dr. Kurush Dalal, who runs Katy’s Kitchen, a Mumbai-based catering outfit, bristles with disdain when he talks about the fish. “I will never serve basa. It doesn’t cater to the taste of my clients,” he says. Siddhartha Bose, a co-owner of the Kolkata-based Bengali restaurant chain Bhojohori Manna does not serve basa either. Instead, he airlifts bhetki from Kolkata to the chain’s outlets in Puri, Bangalore and Mumbai, because “Bengalis swear by their bhetki”.
Not surprisingly, basa is now being farmed in India. According to an article in Forbes India magazine, eastern India produced 30,000 tonnes of the fish in 2010. (Basa is also farmed in Andhra Pradesh.) But, apparently, Indian basa is slightly inferior to the original and sells for a little less than Vietnamese basa. The sheer convenience of basa (it can be easily filleted), its versatility, its taste-neutral nature and year-round availability is, no doubt, behind the fish appearing in menus across the country. Freshness and flavour, then, seem to have been jettisoned for convenience. And, that is not a happy state of affairs. Of course, the restaurant business, like any business, looks at hard numbers, and it looks like the customer has to live with it.
Do I like basa? Well, I think it goes well with salads and certain Chinese dishes. But, would I have it at Malwani Aswad? Not on my life.
By Kalyan Karmakar