Whole Featherback Fish [Clown featherback, Clown knifefish; Pla Grai (Thai); Ca Thac Lac (Viet); Chitala ornata (Mekong).   |   also Chitala chitala (Ganges - disorderly spots)   |   also Chitala lopis (Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Borneo - no spots)]

Native to the Mekong Basin, this important food fish is thin, with flesh so tender it's nearly mushy, and so shot full of bones, spines and fin rays it's nearly impossible to eat whole or as fillets. It is, however, the preferred fish for fish cakes, fish balls and some kinds of pickled fish and fish sauce in Thailand and Vietnam. In North America they are a popular aquarium fish. This fish grows up to 39 inches and 11 pounds but the photo specimen was 17-1/2 inches long and weighed 1 pound 6-1/8 ounces.

More Fish Varieties (very large page).

Block of Featherback Paste Buying:   The large Asian markets in Los Angeles (Alhambra and San Gabriel) have Featherbacks up to about 19 inches in the frozen cases, and sometimes larger ones on ice. This fish is difficult and tedious to prepare, as noted below, but it's essential for some very popular fish cake recipes, the elastic texture of its flesh is truly unique.

I highly recommend dealing with this fish the way the local Vietnamese and Thais do. Dig around in the freezer cases until you find frozen blocks or small tubs of pre-scraped featherback flesh, then go directly to your recipe. The block in the photo was purchased from a large Asian market in San Gabriel, 14 ounces for 2018 US $4.69 (5.36 / pound). For the small tubs, read the label, they may contain pastes from other fish.

Scaling:   This fish is covered with zillions of tiny scales that take a bit of energy to scrape off. Since you'll be discarding the skin you might just scrape them off the top and bottom so you can make filleting cuts and forget the rest.

Cleaning:   Don't bother - there isn't a lot inside these fish and what there is is hard to get at, Just cut the head off behind the gills and pectoral fins and go on to filleting.

Filleting:   Well, you can't, really, the flesh doesn't hold together well enough. I understand freshly caught fish have somewhat firmer flesh, but you can't get those around here. Just do the best you can, you've got to fillet it because the skin is too tough to get at the flesh any other way.

Scraping:   Using the back side of your prep knife, scrape all the flesh off both the bones and the skin. Note that it's shot full of pin bones in some areas. Try to leave all bones and fin rays behind. When I'm finished scraping I run the flesh through a food mill to remove anything I missed. Discard everything but the scraped flesh.

Two fish totaling 2.8 pounds yielded exactly 1 pound of clear flesh for a yield of 36%.

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