After several requests from our readers, we have finally got round to creating our very own ‘Every Foodie’s MUST-HAVE Guide to 10 Common Local Fishes’! It took a while to take the photographs and put everything together, but here is it, our list of the top 10 most common local fishes that every self-proclaimed and self-respecting foodie must know. Because these local fish all feature extensively in our Singaporean and Malaysian cuisine, and more likely than not, you will be consuming some of this delicious local fishes at some point or another in the next two weeks! By the end of this guide, you will know which local fishes goes into your Nasi Lemak, Fishhead Curry and Fishball Noodles!
To make this easy and fun to read, there won’t be any technical jargon, scientific names and that sort of thing which you can easily find elsewhere and others have already done a very good job with it. Instead we will focus on ‘local knowledge’: like why these fish have a ‘claim to fame’ in our local cuisine, and the colloquial names for these fish, which can be confusing because some of the fish has many names that may or may not suit their description! We will also tell you the key things to look out for, so you can easily identify each fish when you see it. And finally, we will also tell you the general cooking method for each fish.
This guide is written in a fun and light hearted style, so we hope it will be an easy, fun and non-technical read for the average Singaporean and Malaysian foodie. We hope this simple guide can allow more people (especially those who seldom go to the wet market) to better appreciate local fishes and understand their role in our local cuisine. Maybe we will even succeed in persuading you to venture out to your nearest wet market to test out your newfound knowledge, who knows?
Note: The list is not in any order of importance. Also, we left out Parang Fish, which used to be very popular for Yu Sheng and Raw Fish Porridge, but has now diminished drastically in popularity since the GBS infection outbreak scares in recent years.
1. INDIAN THREADFIN
Also known as: Ngor Her (Hokkien), 午鱼 Wu Yu or 马友鱼 Ma You Yu (Mandarin), Ma Yau Yu (Cantonese), Ikan Kurau (Malay)
Claim to fame: The “go-to fish” for weaning babies and lactating mothers. The bone, when boiled with green unripened papaya as a soup, is a milk booster especially for mothers who have a low supply of breast milk.
Price: $50 -$60 /kg
- Indian Threadfin is typically sold as a cutlet (steak) or fillet.
- The bones are usually snapped up very early in the morning. You need to beat the crowd to avoid disappointment.
- If you are buying Threadfin for your baby’s first food, let the fishmonger know and they will remove the bones for you.
- There are two types of Ngor Her: the economical version (known simply as Ngor Her) has a black and white pattern on its skin; and the premium version (known as Balai Ngor, because they are fished off Tanjung Balai in Indonesia) has a golden colour pattern in addition to the usual black and white.
Also known as: Spanish Mackerel (English), 马鲛鱼 Ma Jiao Yu (Mandarin), Ma Kau Yu (Cantonese), Ikan Tenggiri (Malay)
Claim to fame: Batang is the typical fish steak used for pan-frying, and for making sliced fish soup and sliced fish porridge.
Price: $18 -$25 /kg
- Batang belongs to the Mackerel family of fish, which also includes Mackerel which is smaller and cheaper, and Tua Pan which is the most premium fish within the mackerel family in our local wet markets.
- You can easily identify it by its lack of scales and thick rubbery silver skin (traits of the Mackerel family), as well as its black vertical stripes (unlike Mackerel and Tua Ban which both have black spots rather than stripes). In addition, Tua Ban has a longer tail, shorter head and a more rounded body than Batang.
- When buying Batang, make sure that the flesh is slightly pinkish, not whitish in colour. Also the blood clots around the bone should be fresh red in colour (see photo of Batang cross-section below).
GET RECIPE FOR SLICED FISH MEE SUA (LONGEVITY NOODLES)
3. CRIMSON SNAPPER
Also known as: 红鸡 Hóng jī (Mandarin), Ang Kuey (Hokkien), Ikan Merah (Malay)
Claim to fame: Popular table sized fish used for steamboat or Cantonese-styled steamed fish for home cooking.
Price: $12 -$18 /kg
- Crimson Snapper is well known in culinary circles for its fine and firm texture.
- You can identify it by its pinkish body and red eyes.
- Do not confuse Crimson Snapper with Emperor Red Snapper (see item 4)
- Also do not confuse Crimson Snapper with Golden Snapper (Ang Zho in Hokkien, 红皂 (Hóng zào), 红潮 (Hóng cháo), which is another popular table-sized fish for steaming that tastes similar to the Crimson Snapper. For some reason it is called Ang Zho even through its actually golden, not red, hence the source of confusion!
4. Emperor Red Snapper
Also known as: Red Emperor or Lion Head Red Snapper (English), 红狮 Hong Shi (Mandarin), Ang Sai (Hokkien), Ikan Merah Coreng or Merah Boring (Malay)
Claim to fame: Most common fish used in fishhead curry.
Price: $15-$20 /kg
- Compared to the pinkish colour of the Crimson Snapper, the Emperor Red Snapper is a vibrant salmon pink colour and is much larger than the Crimson Snapper.
- The Emperor Red Snapper also has a distinctive arch in the head that makes it easily distinguishable from the Crimson Snapper.
- Usually you won’t see the whole fish at the market because people either buy the head or the tail section, and not the whole fish.
- The meat of the Emperor Red Snapper is more hardy than that of the Crimson Snapper – this makes it ideal for curry dishes as the meat won’t disintegrate during cooking.
- Apart from curry, you can also use this fish for Fish Head Steamboat (鱼头炉 Yu Tou Lu).
5. ASIAN SEA BASS
Also known as: Barramundi or Giant Sea Perch (English), 金目鲈 Jin Mu Lu (Chinese), Kim Bak Lor (Hokkien), Ikan Siakap (Malay)
Claim to fame: One of the most common whole steamed fish served in Chinese restaurants with ginger, spring onions and soya sauce. The other common ones are Pomfret, Grouper and Soon Hock (Marble Goby).
Price: $10 – $12 /kg
Things to note:
- Easy identifiable by its golden-coloured opaque eye that looks like a cataract, hence the Chinese name 金目鲈 Jin Mu Lu ‘Golden-Eyed’ Bass.
- The darker coloured fish is usually wild-caught, while the lighter coloured fish is usually farmed.
6. REDBELLY YELLOWTAIL FUSILIER
Also known as: 黄尾鱼 Huang Wei Yu or 豆腐鱼 Dou Fu Yu (Mandarin), Tau Fu Yu (Cantonese), Tau Hoo Her (Hokkien), Ikan Delah (Malay)
Claim to fame: Well known for its use in making fish balls, because it gives the fish balls a nice bouncy texture.
- You can easily identify Yellowtail Fusilier by its unique combination of yellow (tail), blue (middle section) and an obviously pink (belly) hues.
- The meat of the Yellowtail Fusilier is very sweet, so apart from using it to make fishballs, you can also pan-fry the whole fish.
- On the other hand, the skin is very tough, so people don’t usually eat it.
7. CHINESE SILVER POMFRET
Also known as: 斗鲳 Dòu Chāng (Mandarin), Dao Chior (Hokkien), Dao Cheong (Cantonese), Ikan Bawal Tambak (Malay)
Claim to Fame: The quintessential fish for Teochew-style steamed fish, and especially so during Chinese New Year where strong demand can cause prices to skyrocket to $100 per kg from the usual $20-$30 per kg.
- Chinese Silver Pomfret is the most expensive fish within the pomfret family.
- You can identify it by its diamond shape with dull silver, pewter coloured body.
- Take care not to confuse this fish with its more ‘economical’ cousins:
- Golden Pomfret (金鲳 Jīn chāng, Kim Cheor) – fins and tail are golden colour
- Silver Pomfret (银鲳 Yin chāng, Gun Cheor) – body is silver-ish white, not pewter-coloured
- Black Pomfret (黑鲳 Hēi Chāng, Orh Cheor) – see photo below.
- Choose Pomfret with a shimmery body, bright looking eyes and that is firm to touch especially the belly part.
GET RECIPE FOR TEOCHEW-STYLE STEAMED POMFRET HERE
GET RECIPE FOR ULTRA CRISPY BLACK POMFRET HERE
8. TOMAN FISH
Also known as: Snakehead fish, 生鱼 Sheng Yu (Mandarin), Sang Yu (Cantonese), Ikan Toman (Malay)
Claim to fame: Commonly used in Fried Fish Slice Bee Hoon Soup (炸鱼片米粉汤), another local hawker delight.
Price: $14 -$18 /kg
- Toman fish generally has not much taste on its own. You will need to marinate it with salt to bring out the flavour. It is a good fish to use if you want to deep fry fish slices because it does not flake easily.
- Well known for its wound healing properties and highly sought after especially for women who have just undergone ‘C’ section or anyone who has recently undergone surgery.
- Usually only one or two stalls in each wet market sells solely toman fish and it is usually pre-cut into different section. So you just need to pick the piece that you want. Unlike other types of fish, you usually don’t get to see the whole fish.
9. IKAN KUNING
Also known as: Yellowstripe Scad or Yellow-Banded Scad (English), 君令Jun Ling (Chinese).
Claim to Fame: In case you are not aware, Ikan Kuning is the fish that goes into that tasty packet of Nasi Lemak.
Price: $4 – 6/kg
- The name ‘Kuning’ means yellow, and is commonly used in the market and well understood by all fishmongers.
- Ikan Kuning is also known as ‘the poor man’s fish’, I guess because of its affordability especially for large families.
- You can easily identify it by its distinctive and prominent lateral yellow strip running along the back from the head to its tail. It has small eyes, very thin scales and greyish tail.
- Don’t confuse it with its larger cousin – Ikan Selar (One-Finlet Scad, Yellowtail Scad, 色拉鱼 (Chinese), Sek Lah (Cantonese and Hokkien)(see photo below)
- Ikan Kuning is around half the size smaller or more than the Ikan Selar;
- The tail of Ikan Kuning is grey while that of Ikan Selar is yellow;
- Ikan Selar has a easily identifiable long dark strip of hard scales extending from the tail to 1/3 of body but Ikan Kuning does not.
- Ikan Kuning is good for frying especially if it is coated with tumeric powder or paprika and a little salt, whereas Ikan Selar is often served at the peranakan restaurants grilled with sambal belachan chilli stuffed inside the fish.
IKAN SELAR (TOP) vs. IKAN KUNING (BOTTOM)
10. RED GROUPER
Also known as: 红斑 Hong Ban (Mandarin), Ang Kao (Hokkien), Hong Sek Ban (Cantonese).
Claim to fame: Most expensive whole steamed fish served at restaurants. One live red grouper can easily costs about $60-$80 depending on the size.
Price: $16 -$20 /kg
- There are hundreds of different groupers. Here we focus Red Grouper, one of the most popular fish within the Grouper family among the Chinese, because of its auspicious red colour. Red grouper is often a dish served especially during festive seasons such as Chinese Lunar New Year, Longevity Birthdays 大寿 celebrations and Weddings.
- You can easily identify by its red body with distinctive bluish gray spots on its body (these spots are a distinguishing characteristic of the Grouper family in general) and tail which is concave and curved in shape, rather than a pointed ‘V’ shape.
- To ensure that the fish is fresh and not frozen when ordering it in a restaurant, try not to order it deep fried with sweet and sour sauce. It is better to have it steamed so you can really taste the freshness and the sweetness of the fish and you can feel the bouncy texture of the meat that flakes nicely. More often than not, deep fried fish are frozen and it is not as fresh, that’s why you need to add the sauce to mask its lack of freshness. Also the meat will usually taste ‘chah chah’ (translated as ‘wood’ in Hokkien) which means it’s hard and dehydrated.
So there you have it, the 10 most common local fish that every self-proclaimed and self-respecting foodie must know! Now it’s your turn. What do you think? Do you agree with us that these are THE 10 most common local fish? Leave us comments to tell us which local fishes you think should be part of the top 10 list! We’ll be most interested to hear your views.
1. Interviews with local fishmongers
2. My Paper: http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/silver-pomfret-costs-fortune-over-cny
3. Selected price checks at wet markets and supermarkets.
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