“If we have eaten cat stew…”

During the last few years, Cuban places located outside of the island have exposed the production and consumption of catfish- that voracious species- in an unpleasant light, in fact, it has been stated that the environment may be at risk if we do not control the production of such a plate.

The issue already made headlines in 2006 as product of the documentary titled “Blue Revolution” which was made by a Mexican student of the International Cinema and Television School of San Antonio de los Banos, in the outskirts of Havana.

According to Jesus Baisre, the fishing industry adviser, two types of catfish were brought into Cuba between 1998 and 2000.  These were the macrocephalus and the gariepinus, coming from Asia and Africa.  The catfish were introduced in the country in order to increase the consumption of protein of the population.

“But the cure was worse than the disease because the catfish has become a powerful threat to the Cuban ecosystem”, argued Nibaldo Calvo who has a degree in economics and is a resident of Mexico.

Before 1959 the main fish consumed by Cubans was the biajaca.  “In the ’70s they introduced the tilapia, which at first nobody liked thanks to its dirt taste.  But seeing that there was no choice, we had no other option but to invent recipes so our families could eat it,” remembers Lidia, 67-years-old and a retired teacher.

Other exotic fish species that are consumed in the island, besides catfish, are Tench, Sea bass, Red Sea Bass, and the Chinese Grass Carp.  On April 2009, during a workshop in Artechef, a restaurant of the Cuban Culinary Association in Havana, numerous elaborate plates were presented with various different kinds of fresh water fish, among them the catfish.

Someone who does not want to hear talk about “the catfish or any of those strange fish” is Jose Miguel, an 81-year-old grandpa.  “It’s incredible that on an island surrounded by sea they have to spend money raising fish and that they have not been capable of allowing us the fish that we Cubans have eaten all our lives, like snapper, ruffle, swordfish, and the yellowtail snapper.”

The local press publishes information about the production and consumption of the catfish and some journalists acknowledge its dangerousness, especially when there are intense rains or hurricanes and the dams overflow and these fish escape.

But that occurs among the ecologists- nationals or foreigners- directly affect by the controversy.

The economist Calvo points out that the uncontrollable expansion of catfish in Cuba during the last decade “is provoking serious havoc among aquatic fauna and vegetation.  The ecological equilibrium and domestic life is also affected because the catfish preys on tilapia and frogs and could very well introduce itself into subterranean caves, sewers, and household tubes.”

The fact is that the catfish- also known as the devil fish- is capable of traveling across land, thanks to very strong whips of its tail, in search of food outside of the water.  Since it is carnivorous, if it is loose, it can swallow anything in its path:  lizards, snakes, rats, and even birds, turtles, and small crocodiles.

There is not much worry right now for the population.  Neither ecologically or with regards to food.  “It must be known that no one has become sick or has died yet because of eating catfish.  It is a dark and ugly fish, but its meat is white and tasty.  When I have oil, I bread and fry the filets.  Sometimes I also make croquettes which my kids love,”  explains Roxana, 35, who works as an office assistant.

Just one kilogram of catfish filet costs around 39 Cuban pesos (1.50 dollars).  “It’s very popular, it sells quickly.  I get about 200 kilos and in two days it’s gone,” declares Dionis Cruz, a fish vendor in the capital.

Ana Rosa, 70 years of age and a housewife, defends the controversial fish:  “They say that catfish eat rats, but if we have eaten cat stew, and cats also eat rats, eating catfish filet is now a luxury.”

During the difficult years of the Special Period (1990-2000), many Cubans substituted cats for rabbits, for once they are skinned there is no difference. If in home bathrooms they raised pigs, while animals were disappearing from the zoo and vultures had gone to look for food in household cooking pots, then eating catfish today is the most normal thing in the world.  At least for Cubans it is.

Ivan Garcia

Photo:  Breaded catfish filet

Translated by Raul G.