FEA­TURE FOUR FINE FISH

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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.

PUFFER FISH

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.

GI­ANT GROUPER

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.

SWEETFISH

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 Em­pu­rau

Above Ayu or sweetfish

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