Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun (fourth from left) with Secretary General of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Sabah, Datu Rusmadi Datu Sulai (three from right) and President of the Sabah Shark Protection Association(SSPA), Aderick Chong (third from left) when attending a press conference in conjunction with the 'Alternative To Shark Fin Soup Exhibition' program at Wisma Tun Fuad Stephens, Kota Kinabalu. Pix by MALAI ROSMAH

KOTA KINABALU: Empurau fish is set to become the most sought-after item for those who take pride in serving lavish dishes at special occasions such as weddings and banquets.

Priced at RM2,000 per kilogramme, the freshwater fish — native to Borneo, particularly Sarawak — will be a tough contender for the old-school shark fin soup.

Currently, it is the most expensive fish in Malaysia.

Not many have the opportunity to taste empurau but for those who have an acquired taste for such a gastronomic delight, it will surely show off one’s status.

On Nov 11, skilled professional chefs from 16 hotels and restaurants will convene to create their signature dishes featuring the finest empurau fish at the Alternative To Shark Fin Soup Exhibition at Imago Mall, here.

Co-organised by the Sabah Shark Protection Association (SSPA) and Go Seafood Sdn Bhd which owns the Royal Empurau brand, the exhibition is a move to shift the demand for shark fin to more sustainable patterns.

The event is supported by the Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environmental Ministry.

Go Seafood chief executive officer Mikhail Razak Harris said the company came up with the idea to work with executive chefs from five-star hotels and restaurants to create a suitable soup which can serve as a better alternative to shark fin.

“We care about shared community values and sustainable development. We’d like to lead by example by taking an economic approach to conservation.

“We are offering the Royal Empurau brand and raising awareness of its culinary versatility in an effort to attain the overall goal of diverting demand for shark fins in a way that it is culturally appropriate and sustainable.

“We are actively engaging with people and organisations in pursuit of improving our understanding of what influences the choices that they make so we can effectively fight the demand for shark fin.

“We are coming up with something that will surprise a few people. However, we will only reveal that during the exhibition,” he said.

What makes empurau a special fish is its unique diet. The fish has a pallet for fruits and Sarawak’s ‘engkabang’ fruit or illipe nut gives it a rich taste.

Go Seafood executive director Chua Hua Beng, whose family has been farming empurau fish in Sarawak for 11 years, said farmed empurau taste better than wild ones as they are fed with illipe nuts all year long.

“In the wild, these fruits are seasonal but we collect these fruits from natives and in that way, we are helping the community. So, we go to long houses across Sarawak and ask the community to collect ‘engkabang’ fruits.

“We purchase the fruits from them to feed the empurau fish in a controlled environment,” he said, adding that the farm has been adopted by the Sarawak Agriculture Department.

According to a report, an engkabang tree bears fruit every four to five years. The Forest Research Institute of Malaysia describes the fruit as “butter from the rainforest” as it has a buttery texture when cooked in bamboo.

Chua claimed that even though the empurau can be found from Borneo up to Nepal, the ones from Sarawak are the best to be used in dishes.

He said the empurau fish population in the rivers are decreasing but the farming programme helps to repopulate by releasing them back into the wild.

Empurau, he said, should be an icon of Borneo just like the orang utan, proboscis monkey and hornbill bird among others.

“The only difference is that this (empurau) is the icon of Borneo that you can take home and eat because we farm it in a sustainable manner,” he said.

Meanwhile, SSPA chairman Aderick Chong said he hoped the exhibition would be successful in convincing shark fin soup lovers into shifting their consumption behaviour.

“Now that empurau is available, it will make the people think about having empurau as an alternative to the usual shark fin,” he said, adding that SSPA was continuously trying to encourage people to stop consuming shark fin soup.