FEATURE FOUR FINE FISH
A few exotic creatures that find their way to the dining table
There are several factors that make this fish so expensive. Firstly, they are mostly wild-caught and being slow-growing, they take many years to reach a size prized enough for the table. According to chef Li, it can take the fish up to 10 years to grow to three kilograms, and only specimens of at least this size are in demand for the dinner table. Smaller empurau are considered to have flesh too soft to be desirable. They are also very elusive and hard to find. Where they come from makes a difference too. Specimens caught from the Kapit River are reputed to fetch the highest of prices. Unfortunately, the clearing of land for palm oil plantations has hastened the loss of its natural habitat. Coupled with unregulated fishing, this fish is just going to be even rarer.
There has been some success at farming empurau in Sarawak to date. In 2012, Malaysia's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation awarded a grant to Sarawak company LTT Aquaculture to research farming empurau. They have been able to produce large amounts of empurau fish fry and a feeding programme that gets fry to market size as quickly as possible. The company now exports the fish to several countries in the region including Singapore and Hong Kong. The local government is hoping that sustainable empurau farming can become a moneyspinner for the state in future.
Meanwhile, for chef Li, the best part of the fish is its belly which is "velvety smooth and tasty". He likes to prepare it by simply steaming it Hong Kong-style and deep-frying its scales to best showcase the fish's flavour. One day's advance notice is required if you want this fish for your dinner at his restaurant, for bringing the fish to Singapore is quite a feat. Says the chef, "The most challenging part is importing the fish live direct from Sarawak. During the transportation process, the oxygen supply has to be maintained to ensure that the fish is in good condition."
Tasting it once was good enough for me, having had to struggle through an almost suicidal amount of Y-shaped bones hidden within the juicy, sweet flakes of its steamed flesh. It is no surprise then that chef Li advises guests to "enjoy the fish slowly and appreciate it special flavour". It is not just the only way to savour this frightfully expensive fish, it is absolutely necessary to navigate through the dish safely.
For many, the allure of eating puffer fish may well lie in the notion of the forbidden fruit. What is sweeter than consuming something that you are not meant to have? Like breaking into Dad's liquor cupboard when he's away? No, more like playing Russian roulette, some say. For the fugu is supremely toxic. The poison it harbours, called tetrodotoxin, is over a
thousand times deadlier than cyanide, and a dose smaller than a pin head can kill a man. It all starts with a touch of numbness in the mouth. Then paralysis sets in before total asphyxiation. There is no antidote, we are reminded time and again. Ten deaths occurred in Japan between 2006 and 2015 as a result, but fugu continues to be eaten—over 20 varieties of puffer fish, in fact, and 10,000 tonnes worth every year.
If one decides to try fugu, do so only at the hands of a licensed fugu chef and trained master. Training takes two to three years, followed by a practical exam to get the licence. One-third of the incumbents will fail. When preparing the fugu, the masterchefs first remove the fish's eyes, ovaries and liver, which are then carefully placed in a well-marked tray which indicates they are not edible. It is crucial that not a trace of these organs is left behind, or it can be a lethal mistake. They are so dangerous that they must be discarded into locked bins, and eventually brought back to the fish market and burned, together with similar fugu waste from other licensed restaurants. Most of those who died eating fugu were reportedly anglers who had unwisely tried to prepare the fish at home.
There is some ceremony that comes with serving such an intimidating dish. When served as sashimi, fugu is sliced tissue-thin into uniform, elliptical shapes and arranged to form elaborate chrysanthemums and storks and such like. So thin, too, that the colour of the plate shows through the delicate slices of fish. According to Tomita Yasuhiro, head chef of the Singapore branch of Guenpin—Japan's largest torafugu restaurant chain—puffer fish is appreciated for its savoury, umami flavour and its dense, chewy texture, which is "unlike any other sashimi".
He particularly likes to serve it as a hotpot, which best showcases the fish. "This hot pot consists of puffer fish meat and bone, cabbage, shiitake mushroom, Japanese leeks, tofu, kuzukiri noodles and edible chrysanthemums.
We cook these ingredients in a dashi stock and serve it with ponzu sauce," he says.
The fish is also grilled, smoked, turned into sashimi, yakimono, deep-fried into karaage, even turned into vinegared sunomono. The highest grade is the torafugu—apparently the least toxic of all the puffer fish—from Shimonoseki in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, which restaurant Guenpin serves. According to Yasuhiro, fugu is at its best in winter, just before its spawning season. During this time, it is particularly rich in nutrients. Other parts of the fish are also eaten, such as its fin, collagenrich skin and creamy smooth milt.
Fugu imported to Singapore are already sliced, processed and packed, with their poisonous parts removed.
While impeccably fresh whole grouper, proffered in its steamed glory, is well loved by the Chinese for its sweet, tender, flakes of flesh, the giant grouper is so large that it qualifies for nose-to-tail dining. Giant groupers tipping the scales at 150 kilograms have been served in Singapore, with girths reaching over 1.5 metres and over two metres in length.
Each eyeball can weigh over three kilograms; its lips can feed up to 12 people; such a giant yields about one kilogram of throat, prized for its flavour and firm texture; and there's enough meat to feed almost 400 people. No part of the fish goes to waste. On the dining tables in Asia, full menus have been made of the giant grouper. Think giant grouper intestine omelette, deep-fried liver with wasabi, fish stomach cooked with black bean sauce, and fish tail braised with soy sauce. Its generous, gelatinous lips and head are made into broths or stews, bones turned into stock or double-boiled into fine soups with whelks and conpoy, and its skin deepfried and seasoned with salt and spices to form a moreish snack. Fins and flesh are turned into even more delectable treats, cooked with truffle, with guava and garlic, or braised in unctuous caramelised soy sauce.
But such groupers are listed as being in danger of becoming unsustainable by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It could take a grouper decades to reach the gargantuan size of above 200 kilograms, so over-fishing, conservation and the sustainability of wild caught giant groupers are very real issues that responsible foodies should consider. That they can take up to 10 years to become sexually mature also means it takes some time before they can replenish their own population—and hopefully not before they become someone's meal. So the advice is to eat only occasionally, such as for special occasions.
The good news is, countries like Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia and more recently Hong Kong have succeeded in farming these fish. Many depend on wild-caught fingerlings to grow out in their farms, but Taiwan has been breeding the giants in a closed cycle since the 2000s, where even the fries are bred in the farm. In Hong Kong, seafood-loving locals enjoy sustainable, locally farmed giant groupers that go by the name of Oasis Giants. The World Wildlife Fund credits Aquaculture Technologies Asia, a relatively new fish farm in the New Territories, as "Hong Kong's premier supplier of full-cycle farmed giant grouper". The groupers are reared indoors in highly controlled environments, which take away unpredictable elements like pollution, red tide and perilous weather. In such conditions, they grow from fingerling to a 1.2 kilogram fish in about 12 to 18 months, and would sell for about HK$600.
You're most likely to see ayu, or sweetfish, in the menus of Japanese restaurants. It is a freshwater fish much loved by the Japanese for its elegant, sweet flesh which some say tastes a little like cucumber and watermelon. It is widely regarded as one of the tastiest river fish in Japanese cuisine. A member of the salmon family, this 20-centimetre long fish also swims down river like its pink cousins to spend the winter months at sea; in spring, they head up river again to spawn. But unlike salmon, which can live a few years, ayu have a lifespan of only a year. But during its relatively short life, it sends the Japanese into a summer frenzy of ayu-eating.
From June to August, ayu comes into season and heralds the start of summer in Japan. The fishing ban on ayu, in place throughout the year, would be lifted for the summer months and anglers would be out in force in rivers from western Hokkaido south through Kyushu to catch this little fish. While the taste of its flesh is elegant, fishing for it is anything but. Taking advantage of its fiercely territorial nature, anglers use a sweetfish as live bait, on which it attaches four hooks. Other ayu which encounter this unfortunate creature will spoil for a fight; in the struggle, it will be hooked on to the live bait and so it is caught. Catching sweetfish by hand is also considered something of a summertime family sport in Japan.
The most popular way ayu is cooked is to be heavily salted first, skewered undulating on a stick—a technique called uneri-gushi— and grilled by an open fire. They are often arranged in a circle around the burning charcoal or binchotan along street stalls. They are traditionally served with a peppery, piquant sauce called tade-zu, made using a bitter herb called tade, which grows by the rivers and also comes into season in summer. When grilled, the fish is eaten innards and all, as the bitterness of the liver, intestines and head are meant to be appreciated alongside the sweetness of the flesh. The hallmark of a good grilled ayu is when the skin and tail are crispy, but the insides remain tender. Then again, sweetfish is eaten as sashimi, sushi, served with rice cooked in sake, or in porridge.
In South Korea, the fish is also celebrated in the Bonghwa Eun-uh festival which happens in Bonghwa-gun, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. Celebrants spend the day catching them with a net or their bare hands, and like the Japanese, savour them grilled.
Above Ayu or sweetfish