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Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

There is No Rice in Fish Rice (Chaoshan Yufan) 🐟 Disappearing Teochew Cuisine in Singapore 潮汕鱼饭

Cooked_Fish_Chaoshan_Teochew_Cuisine_Singapore 潮汕鱼饭

Chaoshan Fish Rice 潮汕鱼饭 is a quintessentially Teochew staple dish of fish but non Teochew people may be surprised to hear that there is no rice in Fish Rice (herr png in Teochew) 🤔 😄


The home of Teochew Chinese, is a district in south China's coastal Guangdong province. As it faces the sea, seafood play a big part in Chaoshan or Teochew cuisine. 

Teochew cuisine emphasise the original taste of fresh ingredients from the land and sea. Cooking techniques are geared towards bringing out or complement the ingredients' natural flavours. So, there's steamed fish, fish ball, fish dumplings, cold crab, oyster omelette, etc. (Image credit: Wikipedia)


Fish Rice is one such Teochew dish that rely on the fish's freshness. Growing up in Singapore I know it as 熟鱼 "cooked fish" (saik herr in Teochew) since my childhood. Originally a staple in itself, Fish Rice was eaten without rice. Nowadays, it is more a side dish to go with porridge or boiled white rice. It is commonly found in Teochew porridge stalls (but may disappear from Singapore in the not too distant future).

To the uninitiated, Fish Rice is surprisingly clean tasting and refreshing. That's how I remember my first taste of "cooked fish" as a child. That's why Fish Rice is classified by Teochew people as 咸鲜 literally salty-fresh.

Why is there no rice in Fish Rice or how did the dish came about?


A long time ago, long before refrigeration, fishermen of Chaoshan would go to sea for days. They did not take rice with them on the long fishing trips. For food, they would eat part of their own catch.

The catch would simply be cooked with seawater and eaten on the boat out at sea. No rice is involved but as it is the staple meal at sea like rice on land, fishermen refer to it as Fish Rice, hence the name.


Traditionally, 
巴浪鱼 (horse mackerel fish) is most commonly used. As 巴浪鱼 has little market value, the frugal fishermen used them as a staple onboard fishing boats instead of bringing them to market. (Image credit Wikipedia.)

Fresh fish cooked in this way tastes naturally sweet. Enjoyment of this fisherman dish spread to landlubbers and became a quintessential Chaoshan heritage cuisine.


Steps in making Fish Rice start with washing the fish with seawater. Many types of fish are now used for this dish e.g. yellow croaker, leather jacket, pomfret, 海烏頭 grey mullet, rabbit fish, white bait, even squid and prawn, etc. The fish are neither scaled nor gutted before cooking.

The fish are next laid in bamboo baskets, tightly arranged, splashed and smothered with sea salt. The fish are laid in layers with sea salt between and over them. Only sea salt will do and Chaoshan sea salt is the best.

Laying the fish in the basket is an art and not as simple as it seems. The master says if the fish are not arranged properly in the basket, the fish will not cook well.

The fish in the basket are left to season in sea salt for around 15 - 20 minutes before the sea salt is washed off.

The fish are then poached in 65℃ - 85 sea water for around 10 - 15 minutes. The fish is cooked without allowing the skin to break. Once the skin is broken, flavours are lost.

The cooked fish are lightly flushed with hot water, allowed to naturally air cool and are ready to eat. Diners get to the flesh by simply peeling off the fish skin and scale which comes off easily like a flap.

(Note: The cooking process vary slightly from producer to producer.)

The emphasis is on light springy juicy flesh texture and natural sweetness of the fresh fish. There would also be subtle underlying briny taste of the sea in the fish meat.

Fish Rice is traditionally eaten with a simple dip of mashed fermented soy bean smoothened with peanut oil. In Singapore, we eat almost everything with cut chili and soy sauce 😄


Fish Rice is enjoyed by Teochew Chinese around the world including in Singapore where it is more commonly known as "Cooked Fish" 熟鱼.

During its heyday in the 1980s - 1990s, there were some 30 to 40 Fish Rice producers in Singapore. Today, there is only one left and it too is in its last legs before there will be none left in Singapore. All the "cooked fish" you see in Singapore today come from this one producer - Aik Sim Fish Processing Factory in Bedok North. The owner Khoo Kong Heng and his assistant Ang Gek Kuan are both in their 60s - 70s now.

Fish Rice production has been dwindling in Singapore for a few reasons:

Demand for Fish Rice has steadily declined as Singaporean palates and lifestyle changed. Due to low demand, making Fish Rice is no longer a lucrative trade.

Supply of suitable fresh fish for Fish Rice has strung (thus rising the cost of this once humble dish).

There is no new blood in the Fish Rice industry. Much of the work requires heavy manual labour as most of the processes cannot be automated.

Working conditions are unattractive as the cooking area is hot and steamy. Cooking has to be done in the wee hours to get the Fish Rice ready for market at the crack of dawn. Life long reversal of one's biological clock is draining, turning away potential entrants to the industry.

Teochew_Porridge_Singapore

At your next Teochew porridge session, remember to pick a few Fish Rice or Cooked Fish to try. You will be tasting a centuries old culinary heritage, and in Singapore, you may no longer be eating Fish Rice in the not distant future.

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