A toast to the tilapia

I refer to your article “Batang Ai tilapia attracts China business group” (New Sarawak Tribune, May 25) and wish to congratulate Sarawak Land Custody and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra) for its collaboration with MatQtra International, a Malaysia-China joint venture business group.

MatQtra’s China partner is Dalian Huaqi, which operates a processing plant at Zhuanghe Harbour Industrial Park in Liaoning Province. It produces frozen fish fillets, portions and blocks from Alaska Pollock, Pacific Hake, Redfish, Cod, Chum and Pink Salmon for export globally.

It certainly has the technology to process and market all quality farmed fish that Sarawak can produce, and the state is blessed with abundant rainfall, flowing rivers and huge lakes created by several hydroelectric dams, one of which is Batang Ai.

The fish breeding condition in this lake is not only ideal, the quality of the tilapia found here is unsurpassed anywhere. While few diners would pay for an empurau, the king of freshwater fish that may fetch RM2,000 per kg, many could afford to enjoy a tilapia.

However, many tilapias sold locally are of the lowest quality as they were bred in small earthen ponds. Even after deep frying, they taste muddy, which is the main reason why many people dislike freshwater fish.

At the other end of the scale are wild tilapias caught in rivers or streams. Their prices may triple but worth every penny. A good compromise would be those reared in ponds with river or stream water flowing in to change the water regularly.

Tilapia is a hardy tropical table fish farmed in regions with warm climate, second only to the carp in volume. The Chinese call tilapia African fish, because it originated from there and usually sold live at wet markets and supermarkets and offered in many restaurants’ menu.

But some customers feel it is cruel to order anything live, as it would have to be killed before ending up as their meal. I, for one, would not eat any wildlife captured on land, and could not stomach watching a farmed animal being slaughtered.

Most elderly Chinese prefer to eat their food steaming hot as it is in their genes, particularly those of Hakka origin that migrated down south from cold northern China centuries ago. Steaming hot rice with delicious gravy would be comfort food for their soul.

Tilapia maybe steamed, grilled or baked according to preference.

A perfectly steamed fish served piping hot and with only the highest-grade soya sauce or minced Bentong ginger is the best way to enjoy a fresh fish. Adding spices would only mask its delicate flavour, which diminishes the longer the fish is frozen.

And the cardinal rule for freshwater fish is the weight. It must be a kilogramme or more for the flesh to be flaky, as it is too soft in smaller fishes. But tilapias available at most eateries are around 800 grammes because many customers tend to complain when charged more for the dish.

My wife and I would usually ask for the biggest live fish available but up to 1.5kg, which could be a tilapia or patin (silver catfish), and the cook would usually ask the waitress to reconfirm with us, as the size is usually for four or more diners.

Eating fish, I would start with the head. The tilapia is the juiciest steamed fish between the eyes and the soft skull can be split open easily using the front teeth. Next, I would remove the fins and tail, one by one, to suck out the flesh and spitting out the bones, and lastly the backbone.

After that, the only bones left are the ribs, which are long and easily separated. The rest of the fish will be consumed at a leisurely pace, kept hot by a small flame. When the meal is finished, I will place all the bones on the platter and stack up all the plates, bowls, forks, spoons or chopsticks.

The table will be wiped clean using serviettes with no bone, sauce, water, tea or tissue on it. When leaving, the chairs will be pushed in and if other diners are waiting for the same table, they can proceed to sit down comfortably as a worker could remove what I have stacked up at one go.

As for Sarawak, the state government is on the right track if it adopts the anchor company concept to develop its aquaculture sector. Apart from production, the entire supply chain must be in sync, and these include collection, processing and distribution to local and global markets.

Perhaps in time, Dalian Huaqi could set up a processing plant in Sarawak to cater to its worldwide demand for its products, particularly in West, South and Southeast Asia. Not only that, a research centre will be in order, as other freshwater fishes, including the empurau, could open new markets.

Freshwater tilapia

Interestingly, both the tilapia and empurau are herbivorous. While the former feeds on vegetation such as duckweed and algae, the latter’s diet consists of riverine fruits such as ara, dabai, ensurai, engkabang and kepayang.

It is a matter of time that the world would learn that the best tilapia comes from Batang Ai and become a must have for tourists to Sarawak. And for high spenders, there is no greater satisfaction than enjoying an empurau.

As for me, a Batang Ai tilapia is enough to warm the cockles of my heart whenever I visit Sarawak.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.