Singapore-based content creator Kerryn Lee recently spent more than $1,000 to dine on one very-hard-to-get species of freshwater fish called empurau, according to the news website Asiaone.com. In Mandarin, the fish is nicknamed “wang bu liao,” which translates to “unforgettable.” Lee documented the entire experience on social media, and the article claims that—if you do the math—she was paying about $50 a bite. That, at least as far as I could find, makes it one of the most expensive fish to eat.
The fish is presented to Lee and her friends whole and steamed. It’s large, thick scales might lead you to believe the empurau is related to the common carp, but it’s actually a species of mahseer. Members of the masheer family can be found all over Southeast Asia. Some anglers even spend huge amounts of money and travel great distances to target these fish in the high-mountain rivers of India and Nepal. To eat this one, Lee traveled to Sarawak, a country neighboring Indonesia. I’ve never caught nor tasted a masheer, but if I had enough money, I’d sooner spend it to cast a fly at one than taste it. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no fish in the world—least of all in freshwater—worth $50 a forkful.
@kerrynlee SGD1000+ for a fish🥵The most expensive fish ever in my life😳📍Hock Chu Leu Sibu Sarawak #malaysia #travel #tiktoksg #tiktokmy #sgfoodie #sibu #sarawak #statos #statossg #fish #yummy #empurau #empurausarawak #visitsarawak #eastmalaysia #fyp #sg ♬ She Share Story (for Vlog) – 山口夕依
So, why the insane price tag? According to the story, empurau are very hard to obtain. All species of masheer prefer very clean, very well oxygenated moving water. In Southeast Asia where industry and overcrowding tend to pollute or alter rivers where they flow through civilization, that means finding your way far upstream to healthier, less disturbed waters. As the population increases and encroaches on prime habitat, that habitat grows smaller and smaller every year. Factor in overfishing, and it’s easy to see why many species of masheer, including empurau, are in trouble. But the difficulty in obtaining this fish is only part of the high price.
The article says that empurau feed primarily on the fruit from the native engkabang tree that frequently falls into the water. This exotic fruit supposedly gives the fish its unique flavor, which Lee says is so good there’s no need for any sauce to enjoy it. While I have no doubt the fish is tasty, I’m skeptical that it’s diet of fresh produce makes it that special. Both foodies and anglers have a habit of overplaying how an animal’s diet alters the flavor of its meat.
The Great Pumpkin?
Pumpkin swordfish come to mind. These are fish that eat large amounts of deep-water shrimp, and the pigment from the crustaceans builds up in the swordfish’s flesh over time. I’ve been on the dock in Florida when a sword was cut open, and when everyone caught a glimpse of its orange meat, cries of “pumpkin!” resonated across the marina. Having only ever eaten the standard white-meat swordfish, I was excited, but to be honest, I didn’t really taste much of a difference. Still, chefs will pay exorbitantly higher prices for pumpkin swordfish.
Similarly, one of my favorite inshore species to target in the Northeast is the tautog, which feed almost exclusively on shrimp, crabs, clams, and mussels. They are my favorite local saltwater species to eat, and that diet certainly makes them taste good, but to claim that they taste overwhelmingly like any of that forage wouldn’t be true. Point being, if someone said tautog were worth $50 a bite because they taste exactly like what they eat, they’d be scamming you. Still, in my opinion, if you want to spend lots of money on any exotic fish, make sure it swims in saltwater.
Saltwater Fish Taste Better
I understand that not everyone has access to saltwater, or even quality, fresh saltwater fish at a market. And believe me, I’ve gobbled up fried walleye out of Lake Erie, crispy crappie fillets in the deep South, yellow perch from Ontario, and fresh northern pike at a shore lunch in Saskatchewan. I enjoyed them all very much, but I couldn’t look you in the eye and say any of it is better than common saltwater species like flounder, snapper, or croaker. That certainly has a lot to do with personal preference, but I also believe that in general, saltwater fish have more distinct flavors between species than freshwater fish. So, while I’d probably say that bite of empurau I just had was very good, I highly doubt I’d agree it’s worth that kind of money. In fact, no fish in fresh- or saltwater is worth it.
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But let’s suppose you’re into eating the rare; that you’re interested in the most expensive fish to eat. There are a few options I’ve tried that I think are worth the splurge, and that splurge is still pennies compared to Lee’s empurau. One of the best and most surprising I’ve ever eaten was sablefish from Alaska. This deep-sea dweller is nicknamed “butterfish” for a reason, and it was easily the softest, most delicate, and naturally delicious fish I ever ate. Tilefish fillets will set you back a little more than the farm-raised salmon at the fish monger, but this fish—also from deep, cold saltwater—has a sweet flavor and a lobster-like texture. And the monkfish, while far more off-putting in looks than the empurau, is absolutely decadent.
You’ll also have enough money left over after buying a slab to pair it with a nice exotic fruit reduction. I’m more of a tartar sauce man myself.
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