Preparing African Sharptooth Catfish/Barbel… From killing to skinning to cooking!

A-Z of making an amazing meal from a severely underrated fish!


While we (The Nitty Gritty Nomads) are zig-zagging our way across Africa, it is very important to know how to make do with what the land/water can offer, although not all of the herbs presented will be easily accessible, a simple beer batter works just as well.

Barbel or the African Sharptooth Catfish are some of the most abundant fish in Africa, they are found in all freshwater habitats (lakes, rivers, ponds) as well as human-made habitats, having even been found in urban sewage systems. They are capable of crawling great distances from drying or overpopulated ponds as well as surviving long periods of time in shallow mud between rainy seasons. They eat living as well as dead animal matter, anything that can fit in their proportionately gigantic mouths, making them a super successful fish species.

That fish tastes bad and muddy, you can’t eat that fish” (Pessimists 2010-2017)

Words I have heard repeatedly from many unadventurous people, all of which had one thing in common…. having never tasted Barbel (not once). I have prepared this fish on more than 10 occasions, and it has a white to red meat that melts in your mouth! It fetches over R100 p/kg in Germany and has made its way around the world as a viable farming fish. It is rich in protein and essential fatty acids Omega-3 (several times higher than Mackerel and Trout), calcium, amino acids and vitamins.

These above attributes make this fish one of the most attractive freely available food options when exploring the back roads and rivers of Africa. Not only are they an abundant food source throughout Africa, they also have remarkably few bones and are amazing to eat! I will take you through the motions of preparing this delicious fish.

Step 1: Acquire a Barbel and sharp knives.

Personally, I know of no stores that sell Barbel; however throw a worm in at your nearest pond and you are likely to obtain one of these delicious creatures. You will also need a Leatherman/pliers and sharp knife!


Step 2: Kill the fish

Find the center of the back just behind the plating of the skull and sever the spinal chord. Alternatively a more simple method of rock to skull works with as much efficiency. Just make sure you are clean and confident in your strokes as to not make the animal suffer unnecessarily.


Step 3: Skinning!!!

Cut neatly along one side of the dorsal (top) fin, the point is to only make the incision skin deep (1-2 mm) at this point. Do the same on the ventral (under) side. Avoid including the bottom fins, try to trace the fillets you will later remove. Remember to complete the cut behind the skull and above the tail.

Begin by using your knife to pick away the skin from the meat near the tail, so it flaps over, this flap gives you leverage.You can remove the tail as I have above but it is not necessary.

Use your Leatherman to get a good grip on the flap of skin and pull slowly, making sure that you are not ripping the meat off with the skin.

At this point it should pull off rather easily, just keep checking that the meat remains where it is. After you have repeated this for both sides, you can remove the head and you have a fully skinned Barbel. You can now cut a neat line from the rectum to the front so you can remove the intestines and place them in a packet with the head.

Step 4: Filleting!

Begin following the spine of the fish from the front to the back, there are no hidden bones only the rib cage at the front and from there only a spine. An attractive large fillet will come off with minimal effort and no bones! Repeat for both sides.


Sometimes it is easier to do the top; then go from the back towards the front for the bottom half of the fillet.


The end result will be a large boneless fillet and more meat in comparison with similarly sized fish. 


Step 5: Gathering the ingredients

The fillets were soaked in milk for an hour to ensure odor free cooking (unnecessary). Now that the fillets are ready, the fun part starts, cooking and eating!


This is one of the easiest ways to prepare any fish and It will work perfectly with a barbel. The 4 basic ingredients for success are salt, pepper, garlic and lemon. The list of ingredients used for this recipe is as follows;

Fillets of one barbel
Fish spice
Soya sauce
Juice of one lemon
Onion x 1
Fresh basil

Step 6: Preparing the spices

  • Chop the onions and the basil fine and keep aside.
  • Cut the lemon in half
  • Mixed a generous amount of salt, pepper, fish spice and coriander with the flour in a shallow dish. Take the fillets and pat dry them. Then place them in the flour and ensure they are well covered. You will see the flour will naturally just stick to the fish fillets.

Step 7: Cooking

  • You fry the basil and onions in a pan, keep them aside or leave them in the pan and lightly fry the batter covered fish.
  • Cook the barbel fillets until they are nicely browned (Do not turn too frequently as the fish is exceptionally soft and breaks up easily, work delicately, like working with a women’s body or a man’s ego.
  • During the cooking process, squeeze generous amounts of lemon juice over the fish and  add some garlic (You don’t want to put the garlic in too soon otherwise it will burn, another method is to add some garlic powder to your flour mixture)

Step 8: Serve up and enjoy


I served these barbel fillets with a chilly tartar sauce, rice and a salad, but old fashioned fish and chips will do just fine. They are also perfect as starters, just cut the uncooked fillet into small cubes and fry in the same manner. We will redo a different barbel recipe while on the back roads of Africa, do not expect the same extravagance.

Now go catch yourself a barbel, prepare it, and give us feedback!

Please like us (The Nitty Gritty Nomads) on Facebook, so you can follow our journey, Zig-Zaging through Africa on motorcycles! We will be publishing more recipes on amazing African cuisine during our travels.


Author: The nitty gritty nomads

4 motorcycles, zig zagging through Africa… set out on discovering the continents wondrous archaeology, local cooking secrets as well as educating and engaging with local communities. We will be travelling through 14 countries, including South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Rowanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya and then back through Madagascar.

3 thoughts on “Preparing African Sharptooth Catfish/Barbel… From killing to skinning to cooking!”

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