Fishy Business

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A specimen of Tilapia that is fresh from Trapia's farm

A specimen of Tilapia that is fresh from Trapia’s farm

By Alvin Ung

Mankind used to catch fish rather than rear fish. In the Bible, the disciples of Jesus caught fish by the Sea of Galilee. Historians believe these fish were tilapia.

But thousand years ago, in Australia, China and Japan, humans began raising eels and trapping carp in lakes. Since then fish farming has grown bigger and bigger, morphing into 21st century aquaculture. It is now estimated that half of all the world’s fish and shellfish consumed by humans are raised in farms. And in recent years, tilapia has become even more popular than salmon.

Before I started writing about this story, I’d usually eat tilapia by going to a restaurant and eyeball dozens of tilapia swimming a tight lap in a small tank while jostling for space and air. I might point to one fish. Fifteen minutes later, the fish would be brought to my table, fried or steamed, with its head intact and mouth agape. At the end of my meal, there would be a messy pile of bones left behind on my plate. That’s how we eat tilapia, Malaysian-style.

In writing about Trapia, I discovered that eating exported tilapia is whole different kettle of fish, so to speak. The tilapia bound for foreign markets are deboned, filleted and frozen at the factory. Once after the fish is processed, it loses its fish-like attributes; it has become a steak-like piece of white meat. And the fish is marketed like steak. You can order “fillets” that are shallow skinned, deep skinned, and with skin on. You could even order super-premium tilapia cuts called “premium loins” (harvested from the biggest fish, where less than 20% of the fish is used).

Given the big difference between how we eat fish in Malaysia vs. the West, I found myself asking: does Trapia’s premium loins (bound for export) taste different and better from the usual fare at Chinese restaurants? Since most of us may not have the chance to do a comparison test, I had to do it. Here’s what I learned.

  1. No muddy taste: Trapia claims that they produce a “higher quality product with no muddy taste.” I’ve been told that tilapia raised in earthen ponds (as is the norm in most tilapia farms in the world) end up eating algae in those ponds. The algae can give out a muddy taste in the flesh. Trapia’s fish, on the other hand, are raised in deep water where the algae does not occur. After eating Trapia’s tilapia, I concluded that their fish tastes pretty much the same compared to the usual steamed tilapia I’ve eaten in Chinese restaurants. They’re all pretty good. What matters more is the style of cooking and the skill of the chef. I can’t remember the last time I ate tilapia that give off a muddy whiff. (Later I learned why. The Taiwanese rear their fish in earthen ponds but they’ve have figured out a technique of getting rid of the muddy taste. Locally, the tilapia are made to swim for several days in concrete holding tanks until harvest time, thus getting ride of the algae aftertaste).
  2. Thicker fillets: Trapia says that their tilapia has been bred selectively to create thicker fillets. Trapia’s parent company, GenoMar, specializes in breeding fingerlings of several types of fish, including salmon and tilapia. A Trapia consultant from the Philippines told me that version 21 of their tilapia grows faster, and has more fillet thickness compared to earlier breeds of tilapia. On the website, Trapia touts its tilapia as “probably the best genetic broodstock in the world.” During my taste test, I felt that weight for weight, the black tilapia bred by Trapia certainly had more flesh and heft compared to the usual red ones. Their 600-gram tilapia, classified as “very small,” was very meaty. I was amazed by how much meat there was when I ate the fish steamed. The 900-gram version, sold to the US and Europe, which I didn’t try, must be incredibly filling. At our table, we nearly couldn’t finish eating our fish.
  3. Stress-free fish: Trapia uses high-tech fish management systems adapted from the salmon industry. This minimizes the handling of live fish, and it also reduces stress experienced by the fish as they are being transported from their cages to the factory. Some of the nifty Norwegian gadgets I saw were: fish pumps (to vacuum up the fish instead of using nets); grading machine (to sort the live fish by size); instruments to collect data on air temperature, humidity and wind, as well as data on the water including pH, ammonia, phosphate, nitrate, alkalinity and dissolved oxygen levels. The biggest thing is that they use a “lift up” system to remove waste and dead fish from their nets – probably one-of-a-kind in Asia. They also use a data management system called “FishTalk” to keep track of, among other things, the life cycle of each fish from egg to plate. The fish is killed humanely – though its effectiveness is scientifically debatable – through percussive stunning, where the handler shoots a metal bolt against the fish’s skull, rendering it unconscious, before the handler slits the fish’s throat with a sharp knife. At the processing line, a factory manager showed me the coloration between a stressed-out fish (pinkish flesh) vs. stress-free fish (white, almost translucent flesh). Does stress-free fish taste different? No. But it was reassuring to know that my fillet came from a fish that swam in pristine waters and was processed in an odorless and spotless processing plant (where I even asked to eat the fish raw).

A final thought: While I couldn’t taste a difference between Trapia’s fillets vs. the usual fare, I figure that taste matters less for export-driven tilapia. What’s more important is the consistency and thickness of each fillet, and how easy it is to eat. Honestly, while eating Trapia’s thick and “beefy” fillets at a local Chinese restaurant in Parit Buntar, my wife and I agreed that the fish was too chewy. But we attributed it to the chef who steamed the fish for several minutes too long. High-end consumers from US and Europe are demanding – not so much in terms of taste but in terms of sustainability and consistency. Industrially grown fish is, ironically, a bit like fine art. The consumers of both fine art and tilapia demand the ability to trace the provenance of the product. Many art galleries put a great deal of effort to research the lineage of ownership of paintings; likewise the big commercial buyers from US and Europe demand full documentation of the tilapia’s growth history. Before I wrote the story, I just wanted my fish to taste good; now I’m becoming more aware that where the fish comes from, and how it is grown, makes a big difference as well.

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