Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

The sea bass and the case of mistaken identity.

 

2-3The sea bass seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. While researching this article, we came up with at least five different names for it. In Europe, it is marketed as Mediterranean sea bass, and it is called a branzino in Italy. It’s sometimes called white sea bass (which isn’t even a bass but a fish called a drum); sometimes it’s called a Chilean sea bass (which is a Patagonian toothfish and not something you’d actually choose to eat), or it’s sometimes called a giant sea bass (which is actually a grouper). In Asia, the sea bass is called barramundi or Asian sea bass. The word barramundi actually comes from an Australian Aboriginal language meaning ‘large-scaled river fish’. The native species is widely distributed throughout South East Asia across to Papua New Guinea and Northern Australia.

      As far as looks go, the Asian sea bass has an elongated body with a large mouth and an upper jaw that extends behind the eye. It has a single dorsal fin and some of its fins have spines. They have large silver scales which may be dark or light depending on their environment. They are classed as both salt and freshwater fish because even though they are primarily an

ocean-going fish, they don’t have a problem entering fresh water, so can be found in coastal waters, estuaries, lagoons or rivers. They like warmer waters and are happiest at temperatures between 26 and 30C. They can reach up to 1.8 metres long and can weigh as much as 40 kilos.

      Asian sea bass are farmed in Thailand for both commercial and recreational purposes. There is a large farm outside Bangkok where, for a fee, you can spend the day catching this Patagonian toothfish; I mean giant sea bass, sorry, Asian sea bass. They are classed as ‘easy to farm’ because they are a relatively hardy species, the females produce a lot of eggs which in turn grow rapidly, reaching a good harvesting size from only about six months. In contrast, in the wild they spend roughly two to three years in estuaries until they mature and migrate out to sea. The larvae can only survive in salt water, so they remain around the mouth of a river or a lagoon for spawning, which they choose to do at full moon. A shimmering can be seen in the water caused by their iridescent skin which flashes during their passionate love-making sessions. The large females can produce up to 32 million eggs in one season and no, I have no idea how they were counted! All fish are born male and turn into females when they are roughly three years old. This means in the dating world of the Asian sea bass, females can only be courted by younger men. Nice touch, Mother Nature.

      In Thailand the fish is very popular in Thai cuisine and is known as ‘pla kapong’. It is used in many dishes here and can be served in simple dishes steamed with lime and garlic, or deep- or stir-fried. You can sometimes even see it in aquariums where, again, it is sometimes misidentified and labelled as snapper. Cooking Asian sea bass is very easy as it’s a very versatile fish. It has a mild flavour which means it can be cooked easily with other stronger flavours. The white flaky flesh is great on the grill, but make sure you grease both the fish and the grill first because the fish sticks easily and then promptly falls apart. It is quite a delicate fish so make sure you don’t overcook it. Like most fish, you’ll know it’s cooked when it’s completely opaque through the middle and flakes easily with a fork.

       If you fancy having a go at cooking it, try this easy recipe. Start with a chunky fillet and season it well with salt and pepper. Make a few slashes in the skin and place, skin side down, in a heated frying pan with a little oil. Fry until the skin is crisp and golden. Turn, and cook for roughly another 45 seconds and then transfer to a plate and keep warm. Using the remaining oil, fry ginger, garlic and chillies for about two minutes. Take the pan off the heat and throw in some finely sliced spring onions and toss for around 20 seconds. Splash some soy sauce over the fish and pour the ginger, chilli, garlic and spring onion mix over the top. Guaranteed it will go down well at dinner parties.

       There is also a variation where you use a whole fish instead of fillets. Make sure the fish has been cleaned properly inside and place a pounded ginger, chilli, garlic, spring onion mix inside the fish, add a healthy splash of lime juice both inside and out, wrap in foil and bake in the oven for around 25 minutes. The distinct Thai flavours of the ginger, chilli and spring onion seep into the fish and the result is a beautifully flavoured, tender, moist piece of fish.

      Nutritionally speaking, one medium-sized sea bass fillet is roughly 150 calories. It has 6g of fat, 0.5g of carbohydrates and 23g of protein making it an excellent low fat, low carbohydrate, high protein food. This means you don’t need to eat a lot before it fills you up and keeps you full.

       So all in all, a pretty standard, albeit versatile, fish which is easily cooked, marinated, baked, fried and grilled. And when faced with the complexity of food and cooking nowadays, it’s nice to know there’s an easy alternative.

         

Colleen Setchell


 


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