Catfish Family

Illustration of Blue Catfish 01g [order Siluriformes]

There are some 2200 species of catfish in as many as 40 families and many genera. The greatest number of species is found Central and South America (including one recently discovered in Mexico that may have been around since dinosaur days). Some catfish are ocean fish but most live in fresh water. Catfish do not have scales but some species are covered with overlapping armor plates.

No scales means catfish are not kosher, so observant Jews need to use Carp (and deal with the spines) or Tilapia instead. Carp is traditional in Europe but some think Tilapia is the fish Jesus distributed along with loaves.

The heaviest catfish are Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) which can reach 9 feet and over 600 pounds. Unfortunately they are currently listed as critically endangered and should not be fished or eaten. The longest is the Eurasian Wels catfish (Silurus glanis) which can reach nearly 10 feet and 330 pounds. This fish is common in central, southern and eastern Europe, in the Baltic region and the Caspian Sea. It is currently IUC Red Listed as LC (Least Concern).

Caution:   Catfish generally have strong sharp spines at the leading edges of their fins which can cause puncture wounds, and these spines are associated with poison glands. Toxicity of North American cat fish ranges from "not much" to requiring some medical attention, but at least one South American species is deadly and a few others there will land you in the hospital.   Illustration of Blue Catfish by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service = public domain.   -   More on Fish Varieties.

Only a few species are fished and farmed commercially, with the U.S. South and Vietnam as the major producers of catfish sold in North America. Asian markets in Los Angeles sell several varieties of catfish from under 1 pound to over 6 pounds, some of the smaller are available live from the store's fish tanks.

We have separate articles on each of the types most available commercially in North America:

Channel Catfish   -   [Channel Catfish Ictalurus punctatus]
Whole Channel Cat 25e

Catfish farming is a sizeable industry in the U.S. where the Channel Cat dominates. Most catfish are grown (and consumed) in the Southern States but they are widely available in the rest of North America. The photo specimen weighed 4 pounds 1-3/8 (factory cleaned) and was 24 inches long.   Details & Cooking.

Bullhead   -   [Ameiurus melas (Black Bullhead) | Ameiurus nebulosus (Brown Bullhead) | Ameiurus natalis (Yellow Bullhead); all of family Ictaluridae]
Whole Bullhead 03e

Bullheads are a variety of American freshwater catfish that inhabits slow moving backwaters with soft bottoms. They differ from most catfish in having squared off tails and being relatively small in size.

These fish can grow to over 24 inches and nearly 8 pounds, but are commonly about 10 inches and 1 pound (A. natalis a little smaller). A. melas has been introduced to Europe where it forms dense stunted populations, making it rather unpopular. These fish tolerate very adverse conditions, so it's unlikely they'll be able to get rid of them now. The photo specimen, probably A. melas or a hybrid, was 12-1/2 inches long and weighed 1 pound 4-1/2 ounces.   Details & Cooking.

Sheatfish   -   [family Siluridae (Sheatfishes)]
Whole Sheatfish 04d

There are many genera and species in this catfish family, but only a few are fished and farmed commercially. Most live in the rivers and lakes of Southeast Asia and China, though by far the largest, Silurus glanis, is found in the Baltic region of Europe and the Black and Aral Sea regions. The photo shows Micronema bleekeri which can grow to nearly 24 inches, but the photo specimen was 16 inches and weighed 14 ounces.   Details & Cooking.

Pabda   -   [ Madhu Pabda (Bangladesh); Ompok pabda of family Siluridae (Sheatfishes)]
Whole Pabda Sheatfish

This fish is found in rivers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma, and is particularly popular in the cuisines of West Bengal and Bangladesh. It can grow to 11 inches, but is more commonly around 6 inches. IUCN Red listed NT (Near Threatened).   Details & Cooking.   Photo by Balaram Mahaider distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Attribution Required..

Mystusfish   -   [Cá Chot (Vietnam); Mystus mysticetus   |   of family Mystus multiradiatus - Family Bagridae (Bagrid catfishes)]
Whole Mystus Catfish

Native to the Mekong (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) and Chao Phraya (Thailand) river basins of Southeast Asia, these fish can grow to a shade over 5 inches long. They often form schools of both species, but M. mysticetus can be told apart because you can see it's eyes from the underside, and M. multiradiatus has a rounder anal fin. Fishbase has no common names for these fish, so we're calling them by the name on the package we bought. These are a well known fish in Vietnam, where they are harvested when the rice paddies start to dry and they heads for the river.   Details & Cooking.

Vietnamese Catfish   -   [Basa (US); Cá Ba sa (Viet); Pangasius pangasius   |   Swai (US); Pla Sawai (Thai); Cá Tra (Viet), Iridescent Shark, Striped Catfish, Striper (Trader Joe's); Pangasius. hypophthalmus   |   Cá Ba sa (Viet); Pangasius bocourti]
Whole Pangasius Catfish 04e

On the Internet, there are more outright lies about these fish than just about any other food item - lies spread mainly by unethical catfish farmers. Faced with competition, these farmers chose smear campaigns and political manipulation rather than improve their methods to compete. These catfish are very different from American catfish and require extensive preparation to be marketable here, so only frozen fillets were being sent to North America, but, by late 2013, whole fish started appearing in the Philippine markets here. Fillets may range from 2 ounces to over 11 ounces, sold in bags of a single size.

Two varieties are widely farmed, Basa (P. pangasius) and Swai / Tra (P. hypophthalmus), but what is shipped to North America is mostly Swai. Basa is preferred in Vietnam, but, since American buyers don't care, the faster growing Swai is shipped. Swai fillets are thinner and a little coarser than Basa.   Details and Cooking

Walking Catfish   -   [Clarias batrachus - also hybrids with C. gareipinus, North African sharptooth catfish]
Whole Walking Catfish 02e

This air breathing catfish quickly becomes a pest in subtropical regions, especially since it can travel fairly long distances over land from one body of water to another. Brought to Florida for fish farming, it escaped and is now notorious for invading fish farms and eating all the fish. Native to Southeast Asia, it can grow to over 18 inches and over 2-1/2 pounds but the photo specimen was 17 inches and 1-1/2 pounds. Hybrids with the North African variety can be much larger, and that variety itself can grow to 120 pounds.   Details and Cooking

African Sharptooth Catfish   -   [Clarias gariepinus]
Live African Sharptooth Catfish

This large air breathing catfish is native through most of Africa and the Middle East. It can grow to 5 feet 7 inches and weigh over 130 pounds. Farming this fish in Africa has proven so successful it has been taken to Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and India, so it will probably soon show up in the Asian fish markets here in Los Angeles. It is fast growing, spawns easily, can live on agricultural waste and in high density fish ponds. This fish fetches a premium price in many countries because it can be sold live, just kept in a basket of wet straw. See Walking Catfish for Details and Cooking.   Photo by W.A. Djatmiko distributed under license Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

Flathead Catfish   -   [Mississippi Catfish, Yellow Catfish, Opelousa Catfish, Mud Catfish, Shovelhead Catfish, Pylodictis olivaris]
Illustration of Flathead Catfish 01e

A very large Mississippi catfish noted mainly as a sport fish but pretty good eating too. Details & Cooking.   Illustration by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service = public domain.

Blue Catfish   -   [Ictalurus furcatus]
Illustration of Blue Catfish 01e The largest Mississippi catfish and the second best North American catfish for eating, after the closely related Channel Catfish. Details & Cooking.   Illustration by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service = public domain.

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