A taste of raw tilapia

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It takes 15 minutes by boat to get to Trapia's farm in the middle of Tasik TemenggorIt takes 15 minutes by boat to get to Trapia’s farm in the middle of Tasik Temenggor

By Alvin Ung

My earliest memories of buying fish came from accompanying my mother to the wet market. The floor was slick with fish scales, innards and blood. I’d curl my toes. The stink was overpowering. My brother swore off fish for the rest of his life because of the pong of putrid fish. So the prospect of visiting a processing plant – where 12,000 to 20,000 fish are killed daily – was strangely thrilling and toe-curling. What does a thousand slaughtered fish smell like?

Short answer: Nothing. Live fish give no odor. Neither does frozen fish. So there’s no smell.

Long answer: The fish, which is transported live in oxygenated tanks by trucks from Temenggor Lake, are discharged into receiving tanks at the processing plant in Parit Buntar. After being stunned and killed, the fish are graded by weight into four categories: small ones for sale in Malaysia and Singapore; the rest are exported to Europe and United States, while the byproducts are sent to Taiwan. A conveyor belt transports the fish from ground floor to the first floor where a half-dozen people cut the fish into two fillet. Their skill at handling the knife and fish is astounding to behold. It takes a handler only five seconds – and three or four quick knife strokes – to create a beautiful fillet. The conveyor belt brings the fillet down the line where the skin is removed, pin bones are plucked out, and excess bits trimmed off. The fillet is vacuum packed, inspected and placed into a spiral freezer. In an hour the fillet becomes as hard as rock. A machine grades the fish into different sizes before being packed into boxes for export. There’s very little odor – despite so many tons of fish in one spot – because all this work is done so quickly. Their new processing plant, scheduled to be built in a year or two, could reduce processing time by half because everything will be done on the same floor.

.jpgSkilled hands fillet the tilapia that arrived from Tasik Temenggor

There’s no odor at the fish factory because everything here is kept so clean. As part of the standard biosecurity practices in aquaculture, all visitors have to don white smocks, masks and hair nets when entering the processing plant. We wore boots and walked through a foot bath filled with chlorine. We changed smocks when moving from the ground floor (where the fish is killed and bled) to the first floor (where the fish is cut into fillets). We were repeatedly ordered to wash our hands which were then sprayed with an antibacterial solution.

Halfway through the factory visit, a thought occurred to me as I stood there breathing through my mask and fiddling with my hair net: can I eat the fish raw? Is it safe enough? And does it taste good?

With these questions in mind, I approached Richard Ong, the factory manager, to see whether I could enjoy tilapia sashimi on the processing floor.

“Is it safe?” I asked.

“Yes!” he assured me.

Richard went to the production line that focuses on special products. There were twelve people at the workstation tasked with producing premium loins for the United States. A masked woman – I could only see her eyes – cut me a slice from the loin. She washed the piece of sashimi with tap water and passed it to me. The flesh was firm and white, almost translucent.

Suddenly I felt dozens of pairs of eyes focus on me. Their workers had stopped working. Nobody had ever eaten raw fish on the production floor.

“Richard, have you eaten the fish raw before?” I said, as I held the sashimi. It was cool to touch; the room is kept at 22-24 Celsius degrees. “Do you want to join me to eat some raw tilapia?”

“No,” he said. “I don’t like sashimi. I like my fish cooked.”

I popped the sashimi into my mouth and began chewing and chewing. It was a clean mild taste. There was more texture than taste.

“It doesn’t taste much like anything,” I told Richard, a bit disappointed. “It’s like chewing on a rubberband.”

“Maybe it’ll taste better with some soy sauce,” Richard suggested.

I ate several pieces. I offered some to my wife. She chewed. We swallowed.

Funnily enough, we usually think that the fish we buy at the wet market is the freshest. But you’d never catch me asking a fish monger there to slice me a sliver of raw fish to eat. The thought is revolting and scary.

.jpgPrecision being the key, everyone plays a role in making sure the quality of fish from Trapia is top notch

Whereas at Trapia’s production floor, it felt quite natural to do it. It all boils down to trust, I think. I had seen with my own eyes how rigorously the company tracked its farmed fish at every stage of production. Most people would not be able to check things out the way I did. And that’s why a credible certification process – administered by a credible international body – makes such a difference in establishing trust in the field of aquaculture.

And, in case you’re wondering: no, my wife and I did not get sick. In fact, if given the opportunity, I’ll do it again. Only this time I’ll bring along some soy sauce.

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