Skip to main content

In Celebration of Catfish

This month's "National Catfish Day" (June 25th) makes it a good time to celebrate this soul-food staple. Catfish is delicious, easy to cook, high in protein, and pairs well with a wide variety of ingredients and sauces. That's why catfish has earned a global passport, showing up on plates in the American South, Southeast Asia, and West Africa. Here's more about its importance to soul food culture -- and the best ways to prepare and enjoy it.

Uncooked catfish. Photo by Meredith

Uncooked catfish. Photo by Meredith

The History of Catfish

Fish is one of the building blocks of soul food cuisine because it has long been eaten and enjoyed in West Africa--the ancestral homeland of most African Americans. For centuries, cooks in that region have used dried, salted, or smoked fish to season vegetable preparations, or they have fried fish for meals and snacks.

When the Atlantic slave trade brought millions of West Africans to the Americas during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, these forced immigrants brought their culinary traditions with them. They used food to re-create home in a foreign land. Enslaved African Americans ate a myriad of fish, but catfish became an enduring favorite because it was familiar (there are catfish species in West Africa), and plentiful in lakes and rivers in the American South.

People often couldn't wait to eat the catfish they caught; it was processed, fried, and eaten right on the banks of the waterway.


Try your hand at Southern Fried Catfish.


catfish-meal-a-a-fish-restaurant. Photo by Adrian Miller

Fried Catfish for dinner. Photo by Adrian Miller

Fried catfish is traditionally prepared by skinning the fish, keeping it whole (except the head), or butchering into fillets, dredging the pieces in seasoned cornmeal and frying in hot oil in a cast-iron skillet. If deep-frying the fish, you can tell it's done when it floats to the top. That's why some say that fish should swim twice—once in water, and the second time in oil. Due to the ease of preparation, and because a large amount could be cooked fairly quickly, the "fish fry" on Fridays or Saturdays became a regular staple of African American social life, and fried catfish dinners have been a popular fundraiser in African American churches.


Browse dozens of catfish recipes.


The catfish supply dramatically increased in the 1960s when the cotton farmers industry collapsed. Desperate cotton farmers in Arkansas and Mississippi decided to flood their fields and raise catfish instead in gigantic ponds. Thanks to the farmers' stunning success, it became cheap and readily available in grocery stores around the country. Unfortunately, the catfish farm industry has fallen on hard times of late, and prices at the grocery store can rival those of salmon. Thus, home cooks and restaurants now substitute tilapia or Vietnamese catfish (called "basa" or "swai"), which is consistently cheaper.


Related: 9 Things You Need to Know about Soul Food


How to Buy Catfish

Fresh catfish should not smell fishy. The flesh should be moist and translucent, and should spring back into shape if you press on it with a finger. It's available live, fresh, or frozen, and you can buy whole fish, fillets, or in chunks.

Detractors refuse to eat this particular fish because it feeds at the muddy bottoms of waterways, and spending all that time in the mud gives catfish flesh a distinctive taste. Catfish connoisseurs, however, long preferred the muddy taste, but in order to appeal to mainstream consumer tastes, farmed catfish is also available; it has a very mild taste.

Cooking Catfish

If you've never tried it, or you eat it infrequently, I strongly encourage you to try your hand at cooking this very versatile fish. I promise you that when properly prepared, catfish is "off the hook!"

Here are recipes for a couple of different ways to prepare catfish instead of the traditional fried version.

Catfish Curry

Catfish Curry at Savory Spice Shop_Photo by Adrian Miller

Catfish Curry at Savory Spice Shop. Photo by Adrian Miller

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

2 pounds catfish fillets

1 quart water

2 medium onions, finely chopped (about 4 cups)

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons curry powder

2 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

Boiled rice, for serving

Preparation:

  1. Rinse the fillets under cold running water and cut them into 2-inch pieces. Place them in a medium saucepan and add the water, onions, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until the fish is tender but not breaking apart, about 8 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the fish to a serving platter and cover with foil to keep it warm. Boil the cooking liquid until it reduces to 1 cup, then keep it warm over low heat.
  2. Combine the flour, curry, and butter in a small bowl. Mix with a fork or fingertips to form a smooth paste. Roll teaspoon-size bits of the paste into balls.
  3. Return the cooking liquid to a simmer. While stirring slowly and continuously, drop the balls into the liquid one at a time, letting each one dissolve before adding the next. Cook until the sauce returns just to a boil and thickens to the consistency of gravy, about 5 minutes. Check the seasoning.
  4. Pour the gravy over the fish and boiled rice, sprinkle some parsley on top and serve hot.

Creole Broiled Catfish

Creole broiled catfish. Photo by Adrian Miller

Photo by Adrian Miller

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

4 dressed whole catfish (12 to 16 ounces each) or 8 fillets (6 to 8 ounces each)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon Seasoned Pepper (I prefer Lawry's)

1 tablespoon Garlic Powder with Parsley (I prefer Lawry's)

1 tablespoon Tabasco Spicy Salt (available at grocery stores and on Amazon)

Note: If you can't find the seasoned pepper, garlic powder with parsley, and Tabasco seasoned salt, you may substitute 3 tablespoons of your favorite Creole seasoning. My favorite is "Black River Creole Seasoning" from the Savory Spice Company in Denver, Colorado.

Preparation:

  1. Position a rack 5 inches below the heating element and preheat the broiler to high.
  2. Rinse the fish under cold running water and pat them dry. Brush both sides with oil and arrange them in a single layer on a broiler pan lined with aluminum foil.
  3. Mix together the seasoned pepper, garlic powder, and seasoned salt in a small bowl. Sprinkle half of the spice mixture over one side of the fish.
  4. Broil for 5 minutes. Using a spatula, carefully turn the fish over. Sprinkle with the remaining spice mixture. Continue broiling until the fish is opaque in the center, 3 to 5 minutes more.
  5. Serve immediately with sautéed vegetables and brown rice.

Here's our top-rated blackened catfish recipe.


And here is more how-to goodness and cooking inspiration.


[cf]skyword_tracking_tag[/cf]

About Adrian Miller

I'm the author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time," which won the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Reference. Visit me at soulfoodscholar.com.