Published on Monday, 09 March 2015 00:00
If you've been to a Chinese or Seafood restaurant in Singapore and ordered fish, you would know how much of a luxury it is to enjoy steamed live fish just from the costly bill. Many unsuspecting tourists arrive on our sunny shores with a hankering for some good, local Chinese food, and get a shock of their lives at seeing the bill after their meal. Yes, we Chinese take our fish very seriously, even to the extent of paying $1,000+ for a single fish.
Enter the Empurau a.k.a Malayan Mahseer a.k.a Kelah which can cost from $500/kg and up at any fine-dining Chinese Restaurant. The Empurau is hard to come by as the freshwater fish indigenous to Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo is considered to be endangered. While most parts of the Western world don't consider carp a delicacy, Asians prize it for its rich, delicate flesh and tender texture.
The Taiwanese were the pioneers in bringing this fish to the table and aptly gave it the name 忘不了鱼 (wang bu liao yu) which when translated means Unforgettable Fish. Whether it has been named so because of its hefty price tag or spectacular taste, I soon found out.
It was at Asia Grand Restaurant
at Odeon Towers where I first laid eyes on this legendary carp. In a private dining room halfway through our 12-course Chinese New Year reunion dinner, the manager walked in, excitedly explained about this special fish and recommended we try it at $500/kg. We settled on a 2.4kg Empurau steamed in soy sauce, which cost $1,200.
I consider myself pretty adventurous when it comes to food. I've slurped down pig's brains and intestines, munched on fried scorpions, choked down a wriggling octopus tentacle, cautiously bit down into fugu (pufferfish), savored live sea urchins and swallowed shirako (fish sperm). Next up on my food bucket list would be goat testicles, much to the horror of my boyfriend. But I would have never imagined eating fish scales. Yes, the scales of the Empurau are edible when cooked, they are easily scraped away from the flesh with a spoon. And according to the manager of the restaurant, the Empurau scales contain collagen which is good for you.
The edible fish scales
I tried a few scales for good measure, and every time I chewed, I involuntarily made a face. The scales are unpleasant. It is like eating thin slices of plastic covered in a transparent layer of goo. Give me cod fish sperm any day and I would eagerly swallow gallons of it, but no thank you to an Empurau's scales.
The fish with its scales removed
Moving on to the highly anticipated flesh... There was a subtle sweetness to the meat like as though it had been infused with goji berries even though there wasn't any evident signs of goji berries. The sweetness is derived from the fish's diet which consists primarily of a special fruit that falls into the rivers they reside in. I expected the flesh to practically melt in my mouth like butter, considering the exorbitant cost of the fish, but it stayed solid and firm. Furthermore, this is not a fish that you can happily and carefreely eat, you have to be wary of tiny Y-shaped bones found in abundance throughout the flesh.
Overall, it was very underwhelming. To be brutally honest, it was extremely anticlimactic. I got all psyched up when I heard that my unworthy tastebuds had the honor of tasting such a legendary fish but all the hype about it failed to deliver. To put it into perspective, it is like the hottest person in the world walking into your room and stripping down to nothing, only to poop on your floor and walk off.
I reckon that the dish carries such a hefty price tag simply for its boasting rights. This fish dish is most popular among Chinese businessmen who are particularly fond of flaunting their status and wealth in high-end Chinese restaurants with the most expensive food the restaurant can offer; this typically includes shark's fin soup and abalone.
The $500/kg fish, in my opinion, is lacklustre, tastes inferior to other fish dishes commonly served in Chinese restaurants, and is perhaps nothing more than a marketing gimmick. However with that being said, I always welcome new food experiences, especially ones such as rare as this, and I will be lying if I say I will not exert my bragging rights for having tried the extravagantly-priced Empurau. It is truly an unforgettable experience.
If you would like to have a taste of this legendary fish, you might want to call up Asia Grand to check on the availability of the Empurau as it is not necessarily in stock all the time. Share this article with your friends and maybe you guys can all chip in to have a little taste of the Unforgettable.
Asia Grand Restaurant
Address: 331 North Bridge Road, Singapore 188720
Hours: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm, 6:30 pm –10:30 pm