You’re tucking in a repository of selenium and Omega-3 fatty acids as you fork through the harissa-stroked sea bass or crunch your molars on the tortilla-crusted fish, or even tuck in that limey pate. There is something about the sea bass, with its gleaming silver scales, that serenades your taste buds that makes it so attention-worthy as the other piscean cousins jockey for desperate visibility on the menu. Here’s the lowdown.
THE BASS NOTE
Ace chef Prateek Sadhu of Masque, Mumbai, minces no words as he explains the relative low popularity of the desi sea bass a la Bengali Bhetki, Keralite Kalanchi as opposed to the superstar status enjoyed by the Chilean sea bass (the rechristened Patagonian toothfish). “The popularity of the faux Chilean sea bass has a lot to do with the wildly successful marketing gimmick behind it,” he laughs. “Of course, it is a very accommodating fish that pairs well with a lot of flavours, but it really is just a very well-spun story. It is a classic case of lack of awareness. If people stop asking for Chilean sea bass—which they really should—and we were to start talking about Asian sea bass with the same passion, we could probably turn its fate around too. Though I am not biased—as long as fish is fresh and responsibly caught. We do use barramundi quite often at Masque. Bhetki too is a versatile fish to cook with—it is sturdy and not overly ‘fishy’, with a mild flavour that lends itself well to a number of our preparations.”
Price points play a pivotal role in determining the choice of the marine used at upmarket eateries. Locally available sea bass pegs the gourmet gospels at more affordable rates. Says Chef Daya Singh of CinCin, Mumbai. “We work with the Asian sea bass at our restaurant CinCin. Since it is locally sourced, freshness of the catch is assured. I marinate the sea bass in a mixture of Italian herbs for half an hour to lend it a flavour canvas—as it offers a blank slate. It isn’t really as flavourful and fleshy like the Chilean sea bass. While this dish comes together with simple pan-frying of the fish together with sautéd vegetables, I add Kalamata olives to bring in a spot of extra acidity to the dish: this adds a wine-like sweet and sour layer to the preparation.”
THE GROOMING GUIDE
On domestic turf, people often confuse the Vietnamese basa (often pumped with chemicals for whitening) as sea bass. How do you discern between the two? “For starters, find yourself a trusty fishmonger, ” says Prateek with a laugh. “Judge the fish. The flesh of the sea bass will be thick and firm, whereas basa can feel a bit mushy. The eyes of the fish should look clear and sharp, not hazy, and the gills should be bright,” he explains, pointing out that the selection and storage of the bass is equally important to the making of your dish. “Store it belly side down on ice. For fillets, do not freeze directly over ice but in the fridge. Make use of the fish within 24 hours for best effect.”
A protein powerhouse, the Chilean sea bass ranks high on both the taste and health charts simultaneously. Says Chef Sahil Singh of Tygr, Mumbai, “As sea bass has a delicate flavour, you must ensure that the fish flavour is not overpowered with the sauces or marinades. For instance, I have come up with a simple grilled Chilean sea bass fillet with chickpea mash, tomato and basil: the combination of flavours works beautifully. ”The benefits are abound in the flavour palette too. Sea bass fobs off inflammation in the human body too and is a great immunity booster. Adds Daya, “Since it is fleshier than its Asian peer, and richer in fatty acids, it makes for a great fork in, minimal flavouring or seasoning while cooking it. Make sure the scales of the fish are hard when you buy it.”