Meet the super sea bass, farmed-in-Singapore

Farmed-in-Singapore barramundi makes a splash as an alternative to regular sea bass
Sandra Leong, Straits Times 21 Feb 10;

Barramundi used to be the sort of fish found more on the menus of chi-chi Western restaurants rather than at, say, a Sheng Siong supermarket in the heartland.

And even then, you would expect to pay top dollar to savour the fish, air-flown from distant shores such as Australia.

So here is news that might go down well with seafood connoisseurs: Farmed-in-Singapore barramundi is now making its way onto dinner tables, delivered fresh from a new farm located in pristine waters off Pulau Semakau.

Since its first harvest in October last year, Barramundi Asia has established itself as Singapore's largest commercial fish farm, touting itself as the only large-scale operation here specialising in barramundi for the local market and for export.

About 120,000kg of fish have already been supplied to local traders such as the Sheng Siong chain of supermarkets, seafood wholesalers and restaurants, says the farm's managing director, Mr Joep Kleine Staarman, 52.

The fish farming veteran from the Netherlands decided to test the waters here because of the Republic's sheltered geographical location and well-developed trading facilities. He has also farmed fish in countries such as Japan, Australia and Italy.

Barramundi Asia's targets are to generate 500 tonnes of fish this year and 3,000 tonnes a year by 2012, eventually making up 86 per cent of current local fish production and 3 per cent of total fish consumption. Other commonly farmed food fish in Singapore include snapper and grouper.

Farms like this are part of an Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) initiative to make Singapore's food supply more sustainable by increasing local food production from 4 per cent to 15 per cent of consumption, says Mr Lim Huan Sein, 44, head of AVA's Marine Aquaculture Centre.

In all, there are now 106 licensed floating fish farms in the coastal waters here.

Barramundi fish is akin to the more common sea bass - or 'kim bak lor' in wet market parlance. The two are, in fact, the same species, with barramundi sometimes referred to as 'Asian sea bass'.

Singapore's supply of the fish comes mainly from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, though some businesses here also farm the fish on a smaller scale.

So why the need for distinction between barramundi and sea bass?

Location and farming methods matter, says Mr Staarman. Barramundi Asia's fish are farmed in large cages and in open waters off the southern coast of Singapore, whereas imported sea bass are traditionally farmed in smaller cages in stiller waters.

'Due to the current, the water quality is better. This results in a fresh fish taste. It also results in a darker fish as the fish protects itself from the sunshine in the clear water,' he says. The open-water conditions in which his fish are bred are similar to those in Australia, hence the Australian name 'barramundi' which means 'big-scale fish' in Aboriginal speak.

Another distinguishing factor is size: Bred-in-Singapore barramundi are born from special fingerlings supplied by AVA's hatchery. Called 'super sea bass', they grow up to 15 per cent faster than normal fish.

The biggest fish on the farm now weighs 3.5kg, grown from a tiny 1g. Heftier fish, however, are better suited to Western palates and are usually sold overseas, says Mr Staarman.

Indeed, a LifeStyle test conducted by culinary consultant Violet Oon and Straits Times restaurant critic Wong Ah Yoke found barramundi varied in taste and texture when compared to regular sea bass. (see other story)

The differences are also discernible to chef Dominic Chung, 29, from Barossa restaurant at The Esplanade, who recently started serving farmed-in-Singapore barramundi. He says: 'Sea bass from Malaysia, whether farmed or wild, usually has a bit of a 'mud' taste. Barramundi doesn't.'

Other restaurants that have put local barramundi on the menu include Al Dente Trattoria at The Esplanade and Flutes At The Fort in Fort Canning.

Marketgoers can expect to pay between $14 and $16 a kg for barramundi, says the farm. But a check with Sheng Siong found that the fish was being sold together with sea bass at $12 to $15 a kg because the home-grown barramundi is relatively new and not all fishmongers or vendors will know to mark the difference between the two.

More awareness must be cultivated but one way of spotting barramundi is to ask for the sea bass with the darker scales.

Mr Staarman says with a laugh: 'Some customers, after trying it, go to the market and say 'I want that black sea bass'.'

Taste test: Barramundi a fine fish
Straits Times 21 Feb 10;

Food consultant Violet Oon, 60, who runs Violet Oon's Kitchen in Toa Payoh North, and Straits Times food critic Wong Ah Yoke, 48, conducted a taste test comparing farmed-in-Singapore barramundi fish with the more common Malaysian salt water sea bass.

The fish was cooked by Oon in two ways: steamed Cantonese style with ginger and spring onion, and baked with lemon, onion, tomato and thyme.

Their verdict:

Violet Oon: 'The raw appearance of the fish is already different. The sea bass is bloodier while the barramundi is whiter.

The barramundi seems to be a 'tai tai' fish. The taste is more gentle and elegant while the sea bass has a more masculine taste, making it tastier.

The barramundi is probably more for Western cooking as Westerners prefer its white colour and less fishy taste. As someone in the business, I would also prefer to serve the barramundi as a fillet because it has a cleaner, prettier look.

I would recommend steaming, baking or pan frying the fish.'

Wong Ah Yoke: 'The barramundi flesh is much softer and its favour is quite slight. The sea bass has a stronger fish flavour and its flesh is firmer with more bite.

But sometimes you come across sea bass that are farmed in ponds and with those, the meat is too soft - much softer than the barramundi - and that's not so nice.

In terms of appearance, the barramundi does look so much nicer. It's a fine fish on its own.'