Markets in foreign countries can be dazzling, awe inspiring, wonderous and equally bewildering, especially when you’re not familiar or fluent with the language. Since I’ve lived here I’ve familiarised myself with the Spanish and Catalan names for fish, learnt to identify species by sight and laboriously gone through my cookbooks annotating them with translations.
Rewind about a year and my knowledge was not what it is now. After a busy day and mistakenly on a Monday (don’t buy fresh fish on a Monday, no-one goes fishing on a Sunday so it’ll either be frozen or older than you’d like), I called at the market and picked up a fillet of panga. I cooked the fillet of white fish, was unimpressed, disliked the bland taste but thought I’d ‘Google’ for a translation. Recent house guests of mine who were also lured by the shiny, boneless fillets and ease of purchase (in that you don’t have to explain in broken Spanish how you want it prepared as it’s always sold already filleted) did their ‘Google’ before cooking. What appears is shocking. Horror stories of it originating from a highly polluted Mekong river, containing high level poisons, being frozen in contaminated river water and injected with hormones derived from urine. So there it was, a ranting, ‘don’t even go there’ article in the making, a nauseus feeling from the thought of what I’d eaten, and most recently, uneaten fillets in the garbage.
However, things may not be quite what they seem. Of the many, many pages of stomach turning warnings, it would appear that they are from three original sources: a documentary from French television and a couple of blogs, which have then whizzed their way round various other websites, forums and the like. Rather than jump in feet first and berate this new arrival to the fishmongers I felt it wise to take a more balanced and less reactionary view.
What’s undeniable is that Panga is everywhere. All the supermarkets proudly display their offers for it and at the markets it nestles innocuously amongst the hake, monkfish, tuna, salmon steaks and dorade. During a wander around the Boquería I counted a third of the stalls in the central, astonishing fish section stocking it. It is also bargain basement cheap, prices ranged from around 6€ a kilo to as little as 2.99€ a kilo on one stall. You might also find it in called ‘Basa’, ‘Pangas’, ‘River Cobbler’ or any of these names with ‘Catfish’ added on the end. Some UK fish and chip shops have been replacing depleted cod with it, a number having faced the wrath from trading standards when they have masqueraded it as cod with it’s related price tag. Here in Spain it is replacing other fish in menu del dias and regularly appears in school dinners. It is also quite likely to comprise the ‘white fish’ listed in ready made fishcakes or fish pies in many countries.
Panga is a native fish from the Mekong Basin in Vietnam and is now heavily farmed there and in other parts of the Far East for export to countries in the West. There are conflicting reports about the cleanliness of the water in this polluted and industrialised area and also how well regulated the farms are, sources from EU Parliament sites assert that they are regularly inspected to meet their standards. Even if we are to take an optimistic view of the farming methods, this is fish that is being flown half way round the globe for our plates, although it must be said that there are plenty other varieties sitting on the market stalls which have been flown from the North Atlantic, South America and other far flung destinations, not all the traders clearly labelling this.
The UK food standards agency classifies it as safe to eat and stresses that it meets EU import standards, these same standards would obviously apply to Spain. However, only this week Spanish CNN ran a story about it being withdrawn from school food in the Basque Country after experts have continually found high levels of certain toxic chemicals in this seafood. They didn’t quote their sources so I’ve been unable to find anything further about this but again the web is full of conflicting information about chemical levels and testing.
Whatever the truth about this fish being bred and farmed in murky, polluted waters it’s reputation and facts about it are far from crystal clear. For me, primarily it doesn’t taste good and it’s being flown thousands of miles to us, neither of those things being point scoring qualities, its shady background further confirms that I won’t be eating it again. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.