Monday, June 25, 2012

For lack of tastier fish to fry

SPOTTED featherbacks (ikan belida) were being sold at the Serdang pasar tani where I was recently. I had not seen this freshwater fish being sold anywhere in the Klang Valley except in aquarium shops and even then, only as pet fish.

The Cantonese call the common featherback "toh yue" or "knifefish" because of its knife-shaped silvery body. The spotted featherback, which has between seven and 10 dark spots on its lower body, is called "chat-sing toh" or seven-star knifefish. The fish can be found in unpolluted rivers, lakes and disused mining pools.

The last time I saw one sold in a wet market was in Pusing, a small town near Ipoh, three years ago. The fish measured an arm's length. I asked the Chinese man who bought the fish if it was good for eating. He said the fish had many fine bones and was best used for making fishballs, which was why some people called it freshwater ikan parang (wolf herring, a marine species traditionally used for making fishballs).

To have seen the spotted featherback in an urban wet market such as in Serdang came as a surprise because, as far as I know, the fish do not belong to the mainstream table fish species such as red tilapia, ikan sepat (Malaysian gourami), patin (river catfish) or keli (common catfish). A thought that came to my mind then was that city folk had developed a taste for exotic freshwater fish species or our fishermen was running out of common table fish species to catch. But don't be surprised if it is both.

Last week, I read that live ikan puyu (climbing perch) are fetching a good RM15 per kilogramme. The hardy fish, which can survive long periods with little or no water, can be found in abundance in padi fields, mining pools, lakes and some rivers.

In the 1970s, the ikan puyu (or ikan betuk as it is sometimes known) was not seen at dinner tables simply because there were other tastier fish. Ikan puyu were only kept in earthen jars or dropped into wells to feed on mosquito larvae.

Sometimes, they are reared in Horlicks jars placed inside the house for protection. According to an old wives' tale, the ikan puyu never sleeps, and this enables it to be able to protect premises from being broken into by burglars using "pukau" or spells. This belief was rife among the Chinese but my Malay friends also said the same of the fish in their households.

But having seen large numbers of live ikan puyu being sold in wet markets, I know it is not superstition that has inflated its price. One ikan puyu lover told me told me that the fish fried in kunyit (turmeric) powder and cili padi will make you drool for more.

If you were in Johor and had been to the fish market there last week, you would have known that the prices of fish had gone up almost 50 per cent.

A shortage of imported marine fish due to declining exports from Sumatera has caused the hike. Indonesian fishermen were not going out to sea due to bad weather and what little they caught made it unprofitable for their exporters to send their fish over here.

Our fishermen, too, failed to find fish because of the haze and this sent ripples through the fish market as consumers grabbed what they saw without worrying if the prices were a little fishy.

In such a situation, is it any wonder that unpopular fish from our inland waterways, like the spotted featherback, are now finding ready buyers in the city?

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