A Fishy Matter

The over-fished Chilean sea bass has become a popular menu item in the city. What you need to know before you decide to order it.

November 15, 2010 8:25 am by

Chilean sea bass is exceptionally tasty and easy to cook.

At Koh, it’s already a bestseller; at the newly-opened Two One Two Bar and Grill, it’s served with a beurre blanc sauce and crabmeat mash. At Tote on the Turf‘s new menu, it’s roasted and presented in a leek sauce; and at Wasabi, a hunk of the soy glazed fillet will set you back Rs1,800. Cringe though you might to hear its real name, chances are, if you’ve had a taste of the Patagonian toothfish, you’re a fan of its buttery taste. More commonly known as the Chilean sea bass (an ingenious marketing ploy that made a swift and ever lasting contribution to its decline), the bulging-eyed, toothy monster with a protruding jaw has lately been popping up on several menus across the city, being both exceptionally tasty and easy to cook.

Unfortunately for the Chilean sea bass (which, incidentally, is not a bass at all), its combination of firm, almost non-fishy-like flesh, predictable habitat patterns, and neutral taste have made it ripe for fishing.  “Because this fish lives and breeds in frigid Antarctic currents, its texture and taste remain the same even when frozen,” says Jehangir Lawyer, founder of Fortune Gourmet Specialities, a Mumbai-based supplier of premium food products. ”It’s very hard to overcook this fish, which is why it’s a chef favourite.” Add to that a slow breeding cycle and a long life span (they live to about 50 years, and reproduce only when they hit 12 or 13 years), and the Chilean sea bass has been left in perilously short supply.

Here, in Mumbai, the fish has been giving salmon, another popular imported fish, a run for its money.  Farrokh Khambata, the proprietor of Asian restaurant Joss, says that their Miso-crusted Chilean sea bass is a bestseller despite its hefty price tag (its price ranges from Rs1,400 to Rs 1,800 across most restaurants). “It was first popularised by Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa,” says Khambata. “It’s a beautiful fish called ‘white gold’ in culinary circles and we were the first restaurant to have it imported back in 2003.” Despite its evident appeal, there’s more for your conscience to consider before placing an order for the Antarctic delicacy.

Also known as Antarctic Toothfish, Black Hake, Ice fish, and Cod of the deep, the Chilean sea bass was re-branded by an enterprising American fish wholesaler called Lee Lantz, who in the 1970s, came across it in the fishing port of Valparaiso in Chile. As Bruce Knecht recounts in his compelling written history (you can hear him talk about his book Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish here), the decision to call it Chilean sea bass was both ingenious and devious, so done because it would have resonance and familiarity with American consumers. What happened next is a trajectory known to most endangered species—diners developed a taste for it, and demand outstripped supply, with the fish soon appearing on endangered lists, and chefs campaigning for it to be left off menus (in the US it’s recommended to “avoid” as opposed to“best choice” or “good alternative”).

Since 2004, small fisheries have made attempts to sustainably fish the Chilean sea bass, giving consumers in America access to a small portion of Marine Stewardship Council- certified Chilean sea bass (you can read more about the MSC and Chilean sea bass here). In Mumbai, a lot of chefs and restauranteurs say they are well versed in the fish’s precarious position, but that they trust their importers to provide them with certified catch i.e. fish caught with sustainable gear that minimises damage to the sea floor and other underwater life. In India, one of the main suppliers is Fortune Gourmet, who supplies the fish to Joss, the Four Seasons Hotel, Two One Two Bar and Grill, Tetsuma, Tote on the Turf and the InterContinental Marine Drive. Lawyer says he gets shipments from Chile and Argentina every 45 days, along with a document that verifies that the fish has been legally harvested. While in the US, consumers can ask suppliers to produce the certificate, in India legalities are non-existent. Lawyer says you can trust his shipments and thus the restaurant he supplies to; though there are no guarantees that every restaurant is particular about its procurement policy. “Consumers here don’t know much about the legalities of the Chilean sea bass, but the taste is so compelling that they will return for it a second time,” he says. That said, its fate lies ultimately with informed consumers willing to question their menu choices.

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