Friday, 31 October 2014

Facts about Basa fish from Vietnam

Is it safe to eat Basa fish?

basa fish
While surfing the net, sometimes I get really scared. Because I had read some negative comments about Basa fish, I wanted to learn more about the subject. Of course I found a horrible story with the title: Cause of Death: Consumption of Basa fish ( The author Kimberly Truong posted it in 2010 vaguely describing mercury poisoning by basa fish – without any reference to actual happenings. The headline screams for attention but the story is devoid of facts. It seems to be written to put the fear of god into mothers who want to feed their children affordable seafood.
Fact is that basa fish, Pangasius hypophthalmus and Pangasius bocourti, also known as Panga, Freshwater fillets, Vietnamese River Cobbler, Gray Sole and Pacific Dory, is one of the cheapest fishes available worldwide. Only small fishes like mackerels or anchovies cost less. Basa fish feed on plants and grow very fast.
For many years now, basa fish is one of the success stories of modern Vietnam. It started in 1960 under the supervision of the government. Aquaculture, producing mostly tiger prawns and basa fish, is now the third largest industry in Vietnam. This fresh water fish is farmed in the Mekong river system and in some places in Thailand.
As you can see from the graphic provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, basa production has increased a lot in recent years. The main reason is the overfishing of the oceans. If we all want to eat fish, basa is offering a solution.
statistic of basa fish aquaculture development
Basa fish is high in protein, low in fat and provides some omega 3 fatty acids, the precious substances that keep our hearts healthy and our brains working well.
The question remains however: How healthy is this kind of fish? According to the website of the Australian seafood importers, the Mekong is one of the cleanest of the world’s large rivers – not one of the most polluted like the opponents of basa fish claim. To make female fishes spawn in captivity, they need a hormone injection.
In 2006, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service tested 100 samples of imported basa fish for chemical residues. Some showed residue of one or more chemicals. From all the sources I have read I find the following one the most informative: ‘Basa, from myth to reality, the story of a scapegoat fish’ by Margot Grosman.
I think everybody has to form his or her opinion when it comes to basa fish. Fact is our oceans are overfished. Fact is also our oceans are polluted. You can get a serious dose of heavy metals from wild fish as well. Maybe there are less hormones and antibiotics in wild fish, but who knows?
As long as you don’t get the fish you eat tested by a laboratory, you don’t know how much it is contaminated. Just remember that Fukushima in Japan is still leaking radioactive water into the ocean, the third year now.
So far, I have great experiences with basa fish. I prefer to make ceviche with this fish because it is hygienically packed – what I cannot say about the fish here in the market. I have eaten it many times and never felt sick afterwards.
If you want to know more about fish and the state of our oceans, I can recommend the website of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Ceviche, a version with shortcuts

My version of ceviche has two small, yet significant shortcuts. Ceviche is a traditional dish from the coastal regions of South and Central America. Basically it describes the preparation of seafood cured with lemon or limejuice. The acid in the juice changes the protein in the fish so it seems cooked – but no heat is applied.
I have great experiences with ceviche. At parties it usually disappears in no time at all. Unfortunately, when you want to prepare a serious amount of ceviche you need loads of lemon or limejuice. I don’t like to use the commercial lemon juice sold in bottles because it contains ascorbic acid as preservative, which adds a distinctive, unpleasant flavour.
Because I don’t want to spend hours squeezing lime, I have worked out the following shortcut: I cure the fish overnight in synthetic vinegar, then rinse the cured fish and douse it in a lemon vinaigrette.
My second shortcut is the choice of fish. Instead of buying fresh fish, I use frozen fish filets. Here in Goa we can buy Basa fish filets imported from Vietnam. There is a big discussion going on if Basa is healthy or not. So far, I have had only good experiences.
I only buy frozen fish filets in packets that look well closed. I also pay attention that the fish is not covered in big ice crystals. That is a sign that the fish has been defrosted and refrozen. Some supermarkets sell Basa fish filets defrosted, but I avoid these. I don’t know how long the fish has been lying there. If you buy defrosted fish filets, you have to use them immediately.
My ceviche is a great dish for parties because you can prepare big amounts with relative ease. However, you cannot keep this dish longer than one or two days in the fridge.  
Wishing you happy cooking, always!

Kornelia Santoro with family

 Ingredients (for 4 big servings):
  • 1 kilogram frozen Basa fish filets
  • 1 litre synthetic vinegar
  • 12 lime, maybe less, maybe more
  • 100 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 or 4 fresh, big red chillies
  • 1-bundle spring onions
  • salt
  • pepper


Take out the frozen fish filets and let them defrost for one or two hours. They should not be completely defrosted because they are a lot easier to cut into equal slices when they are still slightly frozen.

Cut them into slices around one centimetre thick. Place the slices into a container and pour the vinegar over it. The fish should be completely covered by the vinegar so it cures evenly. I prefer synthetic vinegar because it does not imbue any flavour to the fish. I have tried to use toddy or other vinegar, but it leaves a flavour behind that I don’t like so much.
Close the container and leave it overnight in the fridge. Some people claim that you can overcook fish by marinating it and advise not to cure it for longer than 30 minutes or so. I think this is highly exaggerated. Anyway, Basa is a sturdy fish that withstands a night in vinegar easily without turning hard.

The following day, drain the fish and rinse it thoroughly with drinking water. Drain it again and place it into a sufficiently big container or plate. You have to work cleanly when preparing ceviche because you don’t cook the fish.

Wash the spring onions, clean them and slice them finely. Spread them over the fish. Wash the chillies and chop them finely. I put them into a jam or Nutella glass with a tight closing lid. This is the fastest way to make proper vinaigrette. Squeeze your lime or lemons. You need about 60 to 70 ml of juice.

This depends a lot on your taste. I like my ceviche quite tart. I want to taste the lemon or lime. You might need to adjust the amount of juice you use according to your taste. Start with a bit less, you can always add more. Place the lemon or limejuice to the chopped chillies in the glass. Add about half a teaspoon of salt, close the lid and shake the glass until the salt has dissolved. Adjoin the olive oil and some pepper and shake again until you have a fine emulsion.

Pour the vinaigrette over the fish and mix everything well. Adjust the seasoning according to your taste.

If you feel adventurous, you can take the taste of ceviche in different directions. I like the taste and the look of chillies with spring onion. But you could also make a kind of Mediterranean ceviche with oregano, thyme and garlic. Or you could add the Indian favourite herb coriander and maybe some garam masala with ginger and/or cumin powder. Enjoy!

Friday, 17 October 2014

The origins of lasagna

Diplomats dispute origins

Lasagna stands out as the Italian comfort food number one all over the world, for a really long time. Some people claim ‘Lasagna’ comes from the Greek word ‘lasagnum’ meaning dish or bowl. The Romans adopted this vessel and developed a dish carrying this name that spread all over the Roman Empire, also to the British Isles.

It may seem ridiculous, but in 2007 English and Italian diplomats disputed the origin of Lasagna. An article published in The Daily Telegraph sparked this exchange. The obviously British author stated that Lasagna is an English invention because a cookbook for King Richard II published a similar recipe in 1390 AD.

The Italian embassy in London strictly denied this. Italian historians produced records from 1316 AD, mentioning a Lasagna producer called Maria Borgogno.

Whatever the origins, Lasagna today is not only Garfield’s favourite dish but cherished all over the world. The article cited before mentioned also that Lasagna replaced Chicken Tikka Massala as the UK’s preferred comfort food.

Honestly, I believe the honour of inventing Lasagna belongs to the Italians. Some people say Marco Polo brought the idea of pasta from China, but I don’t believe this. For me, there is no doubt that dry pasta, as we know it, originated in Sicily around 1200 AD. The origin of the word pasta dates back to ancient Greece. Considering that the Greeks colonized Sicily like many other nations because of its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean, I cannot imagine that Chinese input was needed. 

The Arabs introduced the population of Sicily to the technique of drying pasta. They improved and developed this technique because Sicily’s fertile volcanic soil produces the best durum wheat known for pasta in abundance. In the 1600’s a press was invented to shape pasta. Manufacturing plants were founded all over Italy - people liked their pasta to look perfect. Over time, Italians took their pasta everywhere in search for a better life. In 1848, Antoine Zerega established the first pasta factory in Brooklyn, New York. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Vegetarian Lasagna

I would like to introduce my vegetarian take of the iconic comfort food Lasagna. Although this dish has developed countless versions all over the world, I remain a traditionalist. For me, Lasagna centres on the wonderful combination of aromatic tomato sauce with velvety béchamel sauce and Italian pasta, topped with a crust of melted cheese.

Accordingly, my vegetarian version features tomato sauce layered with mushrooms and a sinful amount of béchamel sauce. My guys prefer the traditional way of making Lasagna with a ragout sauce. However, recently I hosted a dinner for vegetarians with Lasagna as the main dish and I thought it would be nice to introduce my recipe here.

To make a proper béchamel, you need a rather large amount of butter. I believe Lasagne is not a dish where you can skip the calories. I would not advise substituting the béchamel with anything else. Au contraire, I suggest to splash a bit more cheese in between the layers. Lasagna needs to ooze buttery deliciousness. If you want to loose weight, don’t eat Lasagna.

I would like to warn you about one thing though. Don’t fill your baking dish to the brim. Remember, that the pasta sheets inflate quite a bit. If you don’t leave enough space, the Lasagna goes overboard and spills into your oven.

Because Lasagna takes quite a bit of effort, I always fill my biggest baking dish, which holds eight servings. If you want, you can prepare the Lasagna one day in advance. Bake it until almost done, keep it in your fridge and then warm it up for your guests. This makes Lasagna an ideal recipe for stress free dinner parties.

Wishing you happy cooking, always!

Kornelia Santoro with family

Vegetarian Lasagna

Ingredients (for 8 servings):

  • 400 grams mushrooms (2 packets here in Goa)
  • 250 grams Lasagna sheets (best Italian)
  • 500 grams Mozzarella (or any other cheese that melts well)
  • salt
  • pepper
  • butter to grease the baking dish
  • baking dish 34 cm (13 inches) long, 19 cm (7.5 inches) wide and 6 cm (2.25 inches) deep

For the tomato sauce:

  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 medium onions
  • 4 big cloves garlic
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 1 medium beetroot
  • 1 stick celery
  • 2 packets tomato puree (200 ml each) or 1 big tin of Italian tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano

For the béchamel sauce:

  • 1 litre milk
  • 100 grams butter
  • ½ cup flour


I always start with making the tomato sauce. If you want to take a shortcut, you could substitute the homemade tomato sauce with a ready made one. However, making Lasagna is a lot of work anyway so you might as well make everything from scratch. For sure it is healthier this way.

Clean the onions, garlic, carrots, beetroot and the celery and chop everything into small pieces. I use my blender for this job. Place the vegetables into a pressure cooker, add the oil, the tomato puree or the tinned tomatoes and half a glass of water, close the lid and boil for half an hour after the first whistle. You can also use a normal pot and boil the tomato sauce until all the vegetables are really soft.

Season the sauce with salt and pepper and stir in the oregano. Dried oregano should never cook for a long time, that’s why it is better to add it after boiling the vegetables. If you want, you can take the taste of the tomato sauce into different directions with adding different herbs. You could for example use thyme or basil. Remember never to chop basil finely because the aromatic oils will evaporate.

While the tomato sauce is cooking, you can clean the mushrooms. I always peel them and give them a quick rinse with water. Never leave mushrooms in a bowl of water because they will soak up the liquid and not taste well. Grate the cheese and keep it aside.
  Now it is time for the béchamel sauce. Melt the butter in a pot over low heat. You don’t want to burn the butter. Stir in the flower and mix very well. There should be no lumps. 

Add a dash of milk to it. At this moment is it essential to keep stirring continuously. When the mild hits the butter-flour-mixture, it seizes up and turns it into a rather thick affair. Keep stirring until you have a homogenous mix before adding more milk. 

Always add only a cup or so and stir until the sauce has absorbed the liquid well. Keep adding until you have incorporated the full litre of milk. Now you need a bit of patience until the sauce boils. Keep stirring occasionally. When the sauce finally bubbles, switch it off and season with salt. Some people like nutmeg in their béchamel; I prefer it without. 
Now it is time to assemble your Lasagna. Slice the mushrooms and butter the baking dish generously. Keep everything in easy reach and use some big spoons or ladles.

Start with a layer of pasta sheets. Spread béchamel over it. Then follow with tomato sauce, sliced mushrooms and some grated mozzarella. Layer the ingredients into your baking dish. There might be some sauce left over (or maybe not). It is difficult to make exactly the amount needed. Remember not to fill the baking dish until the brim.

Finish with béchamel, a bit of tomato sauce and a lot of grated mozzarella. Bake the Lasagna in the oven at 190 degrees Celsius for 45 minutes. The cheese should form a golden brown, crunchy crust. If you have a gas oven like me, you might want to give it a few minutes under the grill to crisp up the cheese crust. Enjoy!