There are more than 6.8 billion people on the planet today.  That’s nearly seven times more than there was just two centuries ago, and more than double the population in 1960.  Yet, human kind has not suffered a catastrophic Malthusian crisis.  Despite the obvious issues with distribution, we continue to produce more than enough food to sustain this astonishing growth.  It is a fact made possible by the equally astonishing advancements in agricultural knowledge and technology.  World population statistics may seem to have little to do with a food blog, but it is highly relevant to the food choices we make.  Local and sustainable have become part of the culinary vernacular yet we still need to feed the planet efficiently and inexpensively.  It is more important than ever to find a balance been quantity, quality and sustainability at this juncture in our history.

Today is National Catfish Day.  You may ask what Catfish has to do with skyrocketing population and agricultural technology?  Simply put, Catfish is one of those once-wild now-farmed foods. I think most of us think the southern United States when we think Catfish, al a Louis Armstrong singing Summer Time and blackened catfish sizzling in a big cast iron pan.  Catfish farming started in the southern states in the 1960s to satisfy the demands of local markets.  These days we can find catfish in markets across the continent.  But the South is not the only catfish producer in the world.

One Catfish - Cleaned and filleted

Vietnam has become one the leading producers of Catfish.  You’ll find it sold under the name Basa.  It’s all catfish, right?  Yes and no.  US farmed Catfish is recommended by Seafood Watch as a “Best Choice.”  The industry is tightly regulated and has been deemed sustainable.  However, there are some concerns about Southeast Asian Basa over the use of open cage farming and the lack of government regulation.  That said, Basa is still considered a “Good Alternative.”  Unfortunately, I find the flavour and texture of the US product inferior and the price is generally higher.  I am also somewhat skeptical of the sustainability ratings.  How can I trust a system that includes wild sockeye on their “Best Choice” list after the worst spawning returns in history?

For this assignment both fresh Catfish and frozen Basa were available at my local fish market.  I took home the fresh Catfish, hoping that my Basa bias would be proven unwarranted.  Alas, the fresh Catfish was muddy in texture and flavour, and I had to skin it myself.  I had the fishmonger fillet it for me and I recommend you do the same.  Catfish is one of the more difficult fish to deal with.  I kept the head and bones hoping to make stock with them, but decided that it would not produce a good stock either.  I thought about doing a traditional Blackened Catfish but opted instead on an Asian inspired dish.  I was thrilled with the sauce and the salad that accompanied it.  I would use Basa, Red Snapper or maybe Halibut next time.  I didn’t have a recipe and I didn’t measure anything, so all I can provide you is an ingredient list.  I hope you can see my vision.

Chili Fish with Peashoot and Kiwi Salad

Chili Fish

  • fish fillets, any firm white fish
  • all-purpose flour
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • equal amount of minced ginger
  • sambal oelek (chili paste)
  • mirin (for sweetness)
  • rice vinegar
  • dark soya sauce
  • sesame oil

Dredge firm white fish fillets in seasoned flour

Pan fry fish until golden brown in vegetable oil.

Drain off excess oil leaving about a tablespoon in the pan.  Sautee ginger and garlic for a minute or two.  Add Sambal Oelek, rice vinegar, mirin, dark soya sauce and sesame oil.  Stir until combined and thickened.  Return fish to pan to coat thoroughly.

Pea Shoot and Kiwi Salad

  • Pea shoots
  • Cilantro leaves
  • White onion, thinly sliced
  • Kiwi, peeled and sliced

For vinaigrette

  • Vegetable oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Mirin
  • Rice vinegar, unseasoned
  • Soya sauce
  • Dijon mustard
  • Ginger, finely grated
  • Garlic, finely grated

Toss greens and onions with vinaigrette. Top with kiwi slices.

Today I used kiwi in the salad because I had some in the fridge, but mango is even better and strawberries are great too.  A little thinly sliced red pepper is also a nice touch.

Now back to the original focus of today’s blog.   I try to make good choices at the supermarket but there is so much more to sustainability than where a product comes from.  Quite frankly, I don’t think we can sustain our population without factory farms and international markets.  Perhaps we could order a cull of the human population.  We do it with wolves and seals after all.  But no, I guess that wouldn’t fly either.

Local and in season sounds great, but what do you do when you live in a northern climate, with a short growing season and poor soil conditions?  What if you live in a city? What I’m saying is, that we need to balance a lot of different needs.  We all need to recognize that a greenhouse-grown cucumber from close to home is no more “green” than the field-raised cucumber shipped across the country in mass quantities.  And then there’s the simple issue of variety.  I can’t imagine a world without fresh oranges and I don’t foresee a local citrus industry springing up here in British Columbia.  Then there is the endless controversy over fish farms.  Are there problems with our current aquaculture industry? Absolutely.  Are they insurmountable? Absolutely not, but we do have to demand more of our regulators and of the industry.

So I’ve come full circle.  What does Catfish Day have to do with world population.  In my case it was the impetus to think about my shopping habits.  As an individual all I can do is try to balance my need for quality and affordability with my desire for sustainability and variety.  Then there is my even larger desire for sound economic development that supports peoples from around the globe.  I wonder if it’s even possible to achieve a balance.  As misguided as I may be, I hope I am making good choices along the way.  I’m torn, but I will continue to choose Basa and hope that my support will help build a healthy economy and encourage more sustainable practices in Vietnam.  My balance sheet says yes to Vietnam Basa and no to BC sockeye.  Yes to Fanny Bay Oysters and no to octopus.  Yes to both wild and farmed venison and no to veal.  What does your balance sheet say?