Temerloh is home to one our favourite fishes: the patin. But what is it about this sleepy town that makes the patin so tasty? We took a ride east to find out…
” The best patin comes from this stretch of the Pahang River. “
Temerloh, as a town, is pretty much like most small towns outside of the Klang Valley. Relatively quiet, less traffic woes and people here live at a slower pace than what we KL folk are used to. But beyond the sense of sleepiness that often besets small towns, Temerloh is famous nationwide for one thing: Ikan Patin…
But what makes this otherwise nondescript town the Patin Capital of Malaysia? We visited Temerloh to talk to a guy (there’s always a guy…) who runs his own fish farm to find out.
To the foodie, the mere mention of Ikan Patin Masak Tempoyak conjures images of a spicy, tart broth spiked with the funky flavour of fermented durian and chunks of juicy ikan patin with tender, white flesh and a delicate sweetness accentuated by layers of fat. It’s one of the most famous dishes in Malaysia and Temerloh is arguably it’s ‘home’.
The patin is actually a group of catfishes native to South East Asian waters. They’re also known as ‘Shark Catfishes’ because of their resemblance in shape to those ocean predators. But all known species of patin are toothless! Some are small while others like the infamous Mekong Giant Catfish grow up to 3.5m long and 600kg in weight. Here’s a fun fact: those affordable frozen fish fillets sold in supermarkets as ‘Dory’ or ‘Sutchi’ or ‘Pangasius’ fillets are in fact, Vietnamese-sourced Ikan Patin.
In Malaysia, the biggest patins average around 30kg although ones bred for commercial purposes are sold when they’re just about 2kg – 2.5kg. Although it would take a trained ichtyologist to tell the difference, the two most commonly found types of patin in Malaysia are the regular patin (commonly referred to nowadays as Patin Sangkar, because of intensive farming of this type) and the Patin Buah, a wild species.
The differences between those two seem to be in texture: the Patin Buah, being a wild and free-swimming variety, has a firmer texture and better flavour. Consequently it is also much more expensive. There are also Patin Muncung, Patin Lawan and several other species. But the farmed variety and the Patin Buah are the most important commercially.
We talked to Mat, owner of a fish farm in Temerloh. He has been operating his fish farm for a few years.
Visitors can come and purchase live fish from his roadside shop too. He and his friends built their own cages: impressive looking but light structures that are secured to each other and made to semi-float in the river to form rows of squares.
Looking from the surface, each square seems empty and lifeless. But a quick dip with a fish net reveals scores of this delicious fish. Each square cage holds the patin at different life stages.
“We actually get the ‘seed’ or fry from mountainous rivers in Perak or Selangor. The patin is migratory and travels upstream to breed,” said Mat. “It is imperative that the seed is healthy and from good stock. Only then will we get strong, healthy adult fish.” The fry is then fed and allowed to mature.
The fish is harvested once it reaches commercial size, which is about 2kg – 2.5kg. At this stage, the fish will be transported to various distributors or restaurants such as Ana Patin House in the Klang Valley. The fish at Mat’s farm all look healthy: alive, the patin is torpedo shaped with glistening, iridiscent bluish-grey skin and pale white underbellies. Surprisingly the fish is rather docile although one must take care when handling it because the pectoral and dorsal fins often have a sharp spine.
Why is the patin from Temerloh so good? Mat believes he has the answer. “This part of the Pahang River is like a confluence,” said Mat. “There is a mix of waters from the kuala and the hulu parts of the river. These conditions allow the fish to thrive because it brings in the food (plankton, algae) the patin feeds on, making them strong and healthy. It’s the ideal living condition for the fish.”
Aside from patin, Mat also rears Tilapia because of its commercial value. Being on the edge of the Pahang River, Mat often casts a line into the current to see what he comes up with. One of his cages holds his wild catches that include Baung, another species of local catfish prized for it’s delicious flesh, and Kerai, a beautiful silver barb from the carp family that can reach RM700 per kilo on the market!
Make no mistake though; fish farming is serious business. Mat works hard everyday to keep up with demand. His days consist of feeding the fish with specially formulated feed and ensuring the cages are all secure. Mat performs all the maintenance himself: fixing nets, lashing together cages and ensuring everything is clean. Vigilance is important too, as Mat told us that there are often thieves looking to rob the farms of fish. “They come during the night and empty the nets,” said Mat. “It’s big money for them. They just don’t want to do the work.”
Mat also laments that conditions are changing. Pollution is a big potential risk. As more and more of the edges of the river are being developed, it’s getting more difficult to maintain ideal living conditions for the fish. Floods present a problem too. One big flood can effectively kill an entire investment in one shot. “It’s happened before, it’ll happen again,” said Mat. “I just have to rebuild.”
Later during that day Mat took us to eat some delicious patin masak tempoyak in the town of Temerloh. He also gave us each a fish to take home and cook. Somehow, knowing the fish we ate was reared and cared for by dedicated local enterpreneurs, made the taste much more special. If you ever drop by the town of Temerloh do pay a visit to the fish farms and have the delicious ikan patin masak tempoyak. But you don’t need us to tell you that: that’s why you came in the first place.
Read here for an article on how to prepare local freshwater fish…