Curiosity may have got the better of me this week as I enter uncharted territory. A quick search for swai online reveals a fish that is subject to some strong opinions. What I want to know is: What is it? Does it taste good? Is it as bad as some would have you believe? To answer these, and other questions, I picked up a one-pound packaged of Legend Bay frozen swai from a local supermarket…for about three bucks!
Firstly, swai is one of several names this fish is sold under, that’s right, another marketing name for a fish. It can also be called basa, river cobbler, panga and in the aquaculture industry it is called pangasius, which is the genus these fish belong to. There are a couple of closely related species sold either as basa or swai and are part of the larger group of shark catfish native to Southeast Asia. These fish are farm-raised for both human consumption and also for the aquarium trade.
The fish mostly sold in the US as swai is Pangasianodon hypophthalmus. Once I saw a picture of swai I remembered the fish from my dad’s old fish tank: it’s an iridescent shark. They are called that because their fins make them look shark-like. As they get older they look more like big catfish. Judging from what I’ve read, swai is so mild and cheap that its imports from Vietnam threaten the livelihood of our domestic farm-raised catfish. So much so that it cannot be labelled as catfish in the United States.
I will always support a local industry over cheap imports, but honestly I don’t like the taste of farm-raised catfish. Swai is supposed to have a cleaner taste and is so mild that several restaurants have been caught using cheap swai in place of more-expensive fish like grouper.
Then of course there is the major issue of how these fish are raised in Vietnam. There are some scary videos on YouTube showing crowded pens of swai or basa living in the raw human sewage that makes up the Mekong delta. All the horror stories about tilapia and salmon seem magnified when looking at the swai industry. Of course there are two sides to every story and some swai producers are attempting to separate their products from the others. Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch lists the various species of pangasius as “avoid” but swai processors certified by the one of the 3 aquaculture associations are considered “Good Alternatives.” The brand I chose seems to be associated with one of these better swai producers in Vietnam, so now it is time check out their fish.
Packaging And Price
I’m a simple man in some ways: I’m attracted to shiny things and blinking lights. So much like Australis barramundi, the Legend Bay swai packaging caught my eye with its sleek black plastic big graphic. More importantly, the bag has two badges labeling this fish to be “ethically cultivated” and also certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance. Sounds like a good choice, although I honestly do not put too much stock in these kinds of labels, be it on seafood, meat or even wine. Labels, awards and such…they can all be bought, so yes, they look good, may give you a little piece of mind, but take it all with a grain of salt.
Legend Bay is a product line for One Source Proteins LLC out of New Jersey, which did not reply to an email I sent. It was expected, they are pretty much just packaging the imported frozen swai fillets for the US market. I dug a little deeper for the sake of the review and thanks to the Global Aquaculture Alliance website, I was able to find the processor in Vietnam that supplies Legend Bay. Bien Dong Seafood is listed as a three-star swai (pangasius) processor. You can check out their website here.
Let’s not forget the price, it is cheap and it is actually sold in whole pounds, rare in my recent experiences in the frozen seafood aisle.
The three individually sealed fillets, once thawed were skinless, white and clean looking, with a pleasant smell. The fillets were not too thin and were whole fillets, not pieces. First impression, out of the package the swai looks better and is in better shape than the barramundi I sampled recently.
Baked Swai with Potatoes
I cobbled together a simple baked dish for the swai, figured it was appropriate for a fish sometimes known as “cobbler.”
- 1lb swai fillets
- 1 can sliced new potatoes
- 1/4 small red onion sliced
- 1 sleeve butter crackers like Ritz
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 lemon plus zest
- salt and pepper
- dash of Italian herbs
- splash of white wine
Pre-heat oven to 375F. Rinse and pat dry the swai fillets and season with salt and pepper. Place a layer of sliced new potatoes (I used canned this time) in a buttered casserole. Splash a little white wine among the potatoes. Place swai on potatoes and brush with melted butter and top with some lemon zest. Place crackers, garlic, herbs and remaining zest in food processor and pulse until well mixed. Top the swai with the crumb mixture, add a few slices of red onion and cook for about 25 minutes or until topping is golden brown and fish is fully cooked.
My impression of swai is that it’s sort of like tofu: it seems to take on the flavors of what you cook it in. It has the texture of other catfish I’ve tried, but it has almost no flavor of its own. Besides the fish texture being a little on the the soft side, swai is absolutely neutral: probably the mildest tasting fish I’ve ever tried. And I don’t mean that to be a compliment, if anything swai is too mild for my tastes. However if you are looking for a good introductory fish, it is hard to find anything offensive about the taste of swai. But as I mentioned above, swai does not have the best reputation. If you plan on trying swai, make sure you source it from a reputable, certified processor.