NOT many people in Kuching have seen it.
And even for those who have, it might not be from the river.
I have seen and tasted it but it was one reared in a simulated environment, designed by local scientist Dr Elli Luhat.
That was about four years ago.
The scrumptious dining treat in question here is a fi sh, known locally as empurau.
It seems to have edible scales while its fl esh has a delicate taste with a hint of fruit flavour.
Recently, I made another visit to see how Elli was doing with his empurau project and amazingly, he has managed to sustain it for about 10 years.
Now, he has some 20 active broodfi sh or parent fi sh, and 300 and 1,000 big and small fi sh.
On my second visit, I could only watch the empuraus displaying their worth in a tank.
Dr Elli’s customers are mostly Malaysian businessmen, VIPs and VVIPs.
With its brightly coloured scales, majestic look and barbells at the tip of its mouth, the empurau is also known as King of The River.
In general, the fi sh is often considered as one of the most expensive freshwater fi sh in the world.
According to Elli, the empurau can grow up to human-size in its natural habitat — which is cool, clean and with fast fl owing water and riverine fruits.
However, he is still not sure how big the fi sh can get in aquaculture ponds as he has not tried that kind of rearing.
Unlike another priced fi sh, the Arowana, which can easily be cultured in earth pond or aquarium, the empurau has proven to be diffi cult.
According to Elli, breeders have problems creating the ideal environment (right temperature and cleanliness) and fi nding the right food for the fi sh.
He said in its natural habitat, the empurau feeds on riverine fruits like ara, dabai, ensurai, engkabang and even kepayang, growing by the riverbanks upstream.
Elli, born and raised in a longhouse — Uma Juman — in Upper Batang Balui, Belaga, said empuraus used to be plentiful in Batang Balui but not so now because of pollution.
Presently, he cultures his empuraus in a simulated environment within a cement tank.
He said this method required special empahsis on aeration, fi ltration, shading or temperature control and disaster control.
Constant water movement in the tank is very important as stagnant water has lower oxygen levels.
The empurau needs suffi cient oxygen both on the surface and in the water.
Moving water will enable the oxygen to also reach the lower portion of the tank.
Elli said the tank must also have a fi lter and moving water from top to bottom to distribute oxygen throughout the tank, adding that increasing water movement would increase oxygenation, and this could be done by installing an additional fi lter or replacing the existing fi lter with a higher capacity one.
“Currently, my fi lter is operating at full capacity, not only providing suffi cient oxygen but also cleaning the tank,” he said.
Elli pointed out that the fountains in the tank also worked wonders in aerating the water as “anything that moves on the water surface, or through the air, increases oxygenation.
” He stressed that the tank must provide a temperature of between 26 and 28 degrees Celsius, oxygen content of between seven and nine mg/l and cleanliness from PH 6 to 7.5, noting that ammonia poisoning was the thing to prevent or control at all times.
“Water has to be crystal clear.
I circulate rain water in my cement tank.
So my water, pumped from the cement tank, is always clear. ”
UPS AND DOWNS
His attempts to create the right simulated environment for his empuraus over the past 10 years had not always produced the expected results.
“There were ups and downs.
The major challenge I faced was simulating the right environment for the fi sh to survive and grow in.
“The setbacks were due to my failing in coming up with the most favourable environment.
But after all the trials and errors, I found the right simulation for the fi sh to survive and grow fast in a tank,” he explained.
Elli said rearing this expensive and elusive fi sh could be done on a small scale but with good returns.
He is selling his fresh empurau at RM1,000 per kg.
His heaviest cultured empurau is 7.5kg so far.
He said based on his personal experience, the bulk of the cost came from electricity bills because the fi lters had to run around the clock.
He gives his empuraus organic-natural feeds such as shoreamacrophylla or engkabang, rubber seeds, ensurai (dipterocarpusoblongifolius), empurau beans or kacang parang, coconuts and gaharu or agarwood fruits.
Gaharu fruits, he said, also served as a natural detoxifier.
According to him, empuraus caught in their natural habitats not only have tender but also rich texture flesh, some with even special aroma, depending on what fruits they feed on.
The aroma is obvious, especially if you catch the fi sh during the engkabang season.
He said the bigger fish weighing above 3kg normally had firm flesh while smaller or lighter ones having a softer fl esh texture.
Based on quality It is believed the price of wild empuraus is determined by the availability of quality catch mainly from the interior.
Wild empuraus are said to be found in Bakun and Kapit but talks have it that the latter produces the best fi sh among the two.
There are also entrepreneurs farming the fi sh in both peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak because of the price they command but the quality of the fl esh is yet to be determined.
It is known that empuraus are highly sought after by anglers and high-end restaurants.
The fish can be the holy grail of aquaculture today as they can fetch from RM800 to RM1,200 per kg live weight.
The empurau is not only the ‘king’ of the rivers in Sarawak but also streams and rivers in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, South China, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailan, Vietnam, Laos, peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia.
It is reported that the fi sh is a major tourist draw in the mighty rivers of southern India where anglers from around the world pay a small fortune for the thrill of hooking a fi sh, also known as mahseer, before releasing it back into the river.
Internationally, the empurau is usually used as a majestic ornamental fi sh because it has magnifi cent bright-coloured scales, an attractive body, aggressive, yet friendly, characteristics that made it a high demand and collectible ornamental fi sh.
In some countries, it is believed the empurau has a different market value not only as an ornamental fi sh but also as an addictive game fi sh because it is known have tremendous power to challenge and thrill the sport fi shing enthusiast.
In Indonesia, some people believe the empurau is a live talisman that brings luck and fortune.
Some also believe this magnificent fish can keep its owner from danger by dying itself, and is protector against evil and ill luck.
But if you are one of those people who like to spend time around aquariums and fi sh tanks, the sight of this swimming ‘Fort Knox’ gliding gracefully in tanks can be therapeutic and relaxing.
In fact, researchers have reportedly found positive health benefi ts from watching empuraus swimming in tanks such as ‘noticeable reductions’ in blood pressure and heart rate, increasing people’s attention span and improving their moods.