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There was a time when Mumbai was famous for restaurants serving locally-sourced seafood. People would head to Mangalorean and Malvani restaurants in search of surmai gassi, Bombay (not Mumbai) duck fry and Malvani crab curry.
Things are a bit different now especially if you go to the slew of new Asian and ‘Continental’ restaurants that have opened in Mumbai. The default fish used here is basa sourced from Vietnam.
This makes you wonder why this outsourced fish, which lacks the taste and flavour that local fish offer, rules the restaurant market in Mumbai today.
From the restaurateur’s point of view, basa offers a cheaper alternative to local fish and helps keep prices down. Basa is available as boneless fillets which make them easier to work on in the kitchen.
Basa is taste neutral (the more uncharitable would call it ‘tasteless’), and offers a blank canvas to chefs to work on. They don’t have to worry about customers who find fish ‘fishy’ when they use basa.
One can get some reasons for the growing popularity of basa if one looks at it from the consumer point of view too.
There are a growing number of new fish eaters. Many of them are prompted by medical reasons. Messages on fish being healthier than red meat and being rich in Omega 3 fatty acids have bombarded us. For those new to the world of fish, the facts that basa doesn’t have bones or a distinctive taste make it more palatable.
Of course one could argue that that basa is frozen way in advance before it is brought to the table, and farmed, thereby reducing its health benefits. Thus, it would not measure up to locally-sourced mackerel, tuna or rawas in terms of health benefits.
Passionate fish lovers continue to look down upon basa and do not consider it to be a palatable option.
However, there is no denying that basa is here to stay and is slowly taking over the seafood section of Mumbai’s restaurant menus.
Last heard some local Malvani joints and Jai Hind, the popular local seafood place, have added basa to their menus.
Kalyan Karmakar authors the popular award winning blog, Finely Chopped and is an authority on the food of Mumbai. His extensive knowledge of the city's food scene has been featured in publications such as Femina, Mumbai Mirror and BCC Good Food. He was one of the founding critics of EazyDiner's Mumbai team.