Catfish: A Rich Soul Food Tradition With West African Roots

Learn all about the history of catfish. Plus, get our best catfish buying hacks, cooking tips, and recipes.

catfish on a bed of cauliflower rice and mixed vegetables in a turquoise bowl
Catfish Etouffee. Photo: Allrecipes

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 are the best ways to make catfish — plus more on its importance to soul food culture.

Catfish and Soul Food: A Concise History

Blackened Catfish and Spicy Rice

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. 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.

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.

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.

How to Cook Catfish

Creole Broiled Catfish
Creole Broiled Catfish. Adrian Miller

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

  • Catfish Curry: 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!" Try this curry recipe as an example.
  • Creole Broiled Catfish: This Creole broiled catfish provides a different technique to cook the fish instead of the traditional fried version. Serve with sautéed vegetables and brown rice.

Explore our entire collection of Catfish Recipes.

More From Adrian Miller:

Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning author. A culinary historian and a certified barbecue judge, Adrian has lectured around the country on such topics as Black Chefs in the White House, chicken and waffles, hot sauce, kosher soul food, red drinks, soda pop, and soul food.

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