Don't be surprised if swai fish hasn't made it on the weekday menu. This ingredient is one that perhaps you haven't heard of, but it's actually versatile, mild in flavor, and inexpensive. This freshwater fish comes from Southeast Asia and is a relative of North America's catfish. Like its cousin, swai can grow huge, around four feet, and close to 100 pounds. Most of the swai found in the United States is farmed in Vietnam and shipped frozen, where it appears on the plate battered and fried, broiled, made into curry, and in a whole range of other tasty applications.
What is Swai Fish?
Swai (pronounced s-WHY) is in the genus Pangasius, the same group catfish is in. However, in the United States swai cannot be considered catfish, as that designation is saved for members of the family Ictaluridae—even though they taste very similar. Swai does, however, look a lot different and doesn't have the large bottom-feeder mouth or whiskers like catfish does.
The bulk of this freshwater fish comes from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Swai gets fished from the rivers in each region along the Mekong Delta, namely the Mekong River. Recent concerns about the vitality of the fish have led to less wild swai on the market, and most of the bulk catch gets harvested from fish farms in the aforementioned areas. Since much of the food gets farmed, some batches of swai may have additives or certain chemicals to the water, which can make it unsafe to eat if not thoroughly heated.
Compared to other fish, swai is a cheap substitute, often costing a third to quarter the price of other fish. It's comparable to light, white fish such as flounder, sole, and grouper, but because of the similarities, there have been plenty of cases of fish fraud. This misnomer has also lead to cooks treating it as a higher quality fish. The best way to be certain swai is on the plate is to source the fish from trusted fishmongers and grocers.
How To Cook Swai Fish
The main thing to keep in mind when cooking swai is it's often not the same quality as other fish on the market, so it's best to heat the food all the way through. Don't eat it raw, rare or medium rare. Aside from that, prepare swai like any other flaky white fish by frying, baking, grilling or steaming. It holds up well to being battered and deep fried, and can take the heat of an open flame without falling apart.
The flesh of the swai is a light beige color, which turns creamy white once cooked. Swai also soaks up flavors well, making it a great pairing with rich sauces and marinades, especially citrus-based ones.
What Does Swai Fish Taste Like?
Mild and with a hint of sweetness is the best way to describe this light fish. Swai can be more approachable to the palate than its cousin the catfish, and the flesh is tender and flakes well once cooked. It's comparable to catfish in the way it tastes, but overall the swai fish is more delicate both in flavor and texture.
Swai Fish vs. Tilapia
Both swai and tilapia are freshwater fish that cost less than many other types of fish, mainly because they are easily farmed. Swai comes from Southeast Asia and gets shipped frozen to the states, where tilapia gets caught and raised all over the world. Both fish cook up white and become tender and flaky, making them great options for fried fish cookouts. Tilapia tends to be a bit more fatty than swai, and can have darker bits to the flesh. If shopping in North America one can find fresh tilapia but swai will always be frozen. Taste and texture wise there's not a huge difference, especially when the sauce is the star of the dish.
Swai Fish Recipes
The fish swai most resembles the basic Southern catfish. Use it in any recipe that calls for that ingredient, or in any dish that calls for a flaky, slightly fatty fillet. Swai fish doesn't have a strong flavor and can easily soak up spices or marinades.
Where to Buy Swai Fish
Consumers outside of Southeast Asia are most likely going to encounter swai fish in a frozen state, because it is shipped from that region that way to stay fresh. Rarely will consumers see the fish whole, either; it's mainly sold in fillets for easy use. Most run-of-the-mill groceries don't carry swai, but it's often found in Asian markets.
Storing Swai Fish
Keep swai frozen until ready to use. Once defrosted, cook within 24 hours. After the fish gets prepared it will keep in a sealed container for a few days. If there's a pungent, unpleasant fishy smell to the fillet, it's best to discard, since this is one fish that isn't always treated in the best way when being raised.
Nutrition and Benefits of Swai Fish
There's a bit more fat to this flaky white fish that's comparable to salmon or tuna. About half the calories come from fat, but it also means swai has a lot of omega-3 fatty acids. Swai packs in protein too, as well as a small amount of iron and potassium.
Swai fish can be called a lot of names including tra, striped Pangasius, Vietnamese catfish, striped catfish, iridescent shark, sutchi and basa.