On a quiet patch of land in Tanjung Malim, Perak, strange, miraculous things are happening. The land is filled with large tanks, which in turn, are filled with fish. So far, nothing seems out of the ordinary.
Except that these fish happen to be sturgeon, a breed of fish that typically thrives in sub-tropical, temperate and sub-Arctic rivers, lakes and coastlines in Europe, north America and some parts of Asia.
Sturgeon fish are also better known for its roe, tiny little orbs called caviar that often fetch thousands of ringgit. And whaddya know? This little Malaysian farm harvests caviar too!
Breeding the fish
When I first meet him, Chien Wei Ho is all smiles, beaming with pride at the sprawling fish metropolis he has been instrumental in creating.
Chien is a Taiwanese national who has a strong interest in sturgeon fish. He previously owned a few hot spring resorts in Taiwan, where he bred sturgeon as a hobby. Most of the fish perished when a typhoon struck in the late 2000s.
Chien was devastated but kept moving forward. On the invitation of a few Malaysian investors, he initially came to Malaysia to start a hot springs resort but ended up deciding to kick-start a sturgeon fish farming project instead in 2008.
The investors pumped in millions of ringgit into the project and Chien got to work. It took him five years, thousands of lost fish, countless expert naysayers, a lot of determination (and some heartbreak) and eight failed attempts before he finally nailed the recipe for breeding sturgeon fish in Malaysia.
“We hired a lot of experts and most of them gave up, but I kept trying,” says Chien simply.
Though Chien – understandably – will not reveal his secret methods, interestingly, after all that trial-and-error, he has discovered that sturgeon fish actually grow much faster in hot, humid local temperatures than they otherwise would.
“The growth of the fish is much faster – because in Europe, they have four seasons, so during winter, the fish don’t eat and don’t grow but here they’re growing and growing 365 days a year,” he says jubilantly.
Generally, what this means is that the growth trajectory of the local sturgeon fish is almost double that of its international counterparts.
On the farm, for example, a sturgeon can weigh between six to eight kg when it is three years old, but in China, this weight is only achievable in six years. So on that front, the tropically-grown sturgeon has a huge headstart.
At the moment, the farm imports both fertilised sturgeon eggs and sturgeon fish predominantly from China. The fertilised eggs are kept in a temperature-controlled environment (the water and room have to be around 16ºC in the initial stages) for a few months with the temperature cranked up at different stages so the fish get used to the external temperature.
After this, the fish spend the rest of their lives in tanks exposed to ambient (read: tropical) temperatures.
Chien says the purity of the water used in the tanks is important to ensure good quality fish. As such, he uses water sourced from the forest behind the farm, which is so pristine it has a pH value of seven.
This water is pumped into the tanks three times a day to ensure it remains clean and the fish are only fed commercial marine pellets for optimum growth.
“The natural resources here are excellent, the water quality is very good so I am confident that the fish and the caviar are world-class,” says Chien.
Today, the farm is host to about 18,000 sturgeon (the largest fish on the farm is a whopping 80kg) and business is thriving. This in large part has to do with the involvement of company director Lim Aun Jun.
Lim became immersed in the farm’s day-to-day operations in 2017, after being tasked by his family (who had invested in the farm) to commercialise the output from the farm.
“Up until that point, the focus had been on R&D, not on selling the fish or the caviar, so I focused on commercialising both,” he says.
Lim spent a year learning the ins and outs of sturgeon farming and caviar harvesting, even engaging a German expert to show the team how to extract the best flavour from the caviar.
He also looked at more ways to expand the sturgeon fish market as the fish had typically only been sold to Chinese restaurants prior to that.
“Previously before I joined, the fish had been quite popular in Chinese restaurants like Unique Seafood. But in Chinese cuisine, there is a limitatation because the restaurants only want live fish (a huge drawback, because sturgeon need to be slaughtered in order to extract caviar).
"So therefore right now, we are targeting a lot of other restaurants that do more Western cuisine like French and Italian food, where we can supply frozen fish. And so far, the response has been good,” he says.
Under his watch, the company also launched T’lur Caviar, the first Malaysian brand of tropical caviar in March 2019 and hasn’t looked back since.
Made in Malaysia caviar
Caviar is one of the world’s oldest luxury foods and was originally harvested by Russian and Persian fishermen in the Caspian Sea. It typically refers to salt-cured fish roe only sourced from sturgeon (roe from salmon and other fish is not considered “real caviar”).
The Caspian Sea is often reputed to be the producer of the best caviar in the world, with varietals like Beluga caviar and Osetra caviar leading the premium pack.
There are 27 different species of sturgeon in the world, but T’lur’s caviar yield is only from two kinds – Siberian sturgeon and Amur (Japanese) sturgeon.
Chien and Lim first realised they were sitting on a goldmine when an injured fish was slaughtered and caviar was discovered. Further examination of a sample size of fish on the farm showed that 99% of them were female.
“We suspect it’s because of the environment and weather,” says Lim.
Since most of the fish on the farm are female and Chien had already discovered how to keep sturgeon fish alive in the local climate, selling Malaysian caviar became a foregone conclusion. After all, Chien had already proved to be a sturgeon pioneer.
Why not go the extra mile and become a pioneering Malaysian caviar producer too?
Caviar harvesting 101
To check if the fish are bearing eggs, the team does an ultrasound examination. If eggs are discovered, this is then followed up with a biopsy to determine exactly when the caviar should be harvested.
“Sometimes we check when the fish are a year old, because at that stage, we have sometimes found ovaries already. In Russia and China, they need eight to 12 years to find the caviar. Here, we start checking after one year, but normally when the fish are between four to five years, we can already find the caviar. This is one of the fastest caviar productions in the world!” enthuses Chan Choon How, the farm’s senior operation executive.
Once it is determined that the caviar is ready to be harvested, the fish is slaughtered.
At the farm’s caviar processing plant, hygiene and sanitation are top priority and staff have to adorn gloves, masks and socks to harvest the caviar. The fish is placed on a long table and then the careful process of extracting the caviar begins.
“It’s a very slimy fish, we don’t want to cut too deep otherwise we’ll cut the eggs. So one of us cuts and the other one extracts the eggs, because whoever cuts will be covered in slime,” says Shaun Kenneth Simon, the brand’s head of marketing. The rest of the fish is then filleted, frozen and sold to restaurants.
When extracted from the fish, the caviar actually resembles an amorphous solid black lump and only takes up between 10% to 20% of the fish’s body weight. The sturgeon that Shaun slaughtered, for example, weighed 19kg and the solid weight of the caviar came up to 2.9kg.
Past this point, the caviar then goes through an elaborate, incredibly manually intensive process to get it ready for consumption.
First, it is gently pressed against a wire mesh to remove fat, membrane and other impurities. Then it is rinsed a few times in purified water until the water comes out clean (but it cannot be washed too much otherwise the eggs will become soggy).
The step after this is where the most back-breaking work takes place as the team has to bend over the caviar with tweezers in hand, carefully combing through each tiny egg and plucking out more fat, membrane and pieces that are discoloured, a process that can take up to one and a half hour (remember that each caviar is no more than a few mm!)
Once that it is done, sea salt (between 2.8% to 3.7%) is added to the caviar and it is packed into sterilised 500g tins and left to age for a week, before being repackaged into 30g tins.
The caviar from T’lur does not go through a pasteurisation process as Lim and his team want consumers to consume the freshest caviar possible. This also means the shelf life of the caviar is somewhere in the region of three months.
“Pasteurisation does increase shelf life because you cook the eggs so it lasts longer but you’re not really capitalising on the fact that this is a Malaysian farm where you can get fresh caviar,” explains Shaun.
Taste-wise, the caviar is delicious – bouncy yet pliant with a lightly briny quality and rich umami notes. T’lur’s caviar is priced at RM800 for 30g of Amur and RM600 for 30g of Siberia, but there is currently a promotional price of RM500 for Amur and RM400 for Siberia.
Sometimes people tell me, ‘It’s so expensive, you should make it cheaper!’ But the thing is, if you look at the process and what people have to go through to actually harvest it, you’ll understand the pricing,” says Shaun.
Since T’lur started selling caviar this year, the brand has generated a huge amount of interest from both consumers and restaurants. To date, they supply their range of “tropical caviar” as they call it, to restaurants like Sitka, DC, Entier, Nobu and Skillet and demand has shot up so much in recent months that it has surpassed all their initial projections.
“We have a lot of enquiries and our production has jumped from 2kg to 15kg a month and right now we are targeting 40kg to 50kg a month,” says Lim.
The next phase
There is little doubt in Chien’s and Lim’s minds that Malaysian caviar is only going to get bigger. In fact, they are so convinced of this that expansion plans are already in the works. While the current farm sits on 3.3 acres of land, Lim is working on acquiring an additional 60 acres of land to maximise potential.
“We have limited space – we have 18,000 fish and this farm can only facilitate 5,000 adult fish. Right now, it’s still alright because we have 3,000 adult fish and most of it are three to four kg – they are still young.
“In the new farm, our maximum capacity of adult fish will go up to 100,000, which is 30 times more than our existing farm. And by then, because we are aware of the requirements of the fish, we will be able to come up with a more space-efficient, resource-efficient farm,” says Lim with confidence.
Lim also says that in five years, they aim to be able to produce 10 tonnes of caviar a year, which would give them about 5% of the global market share.
Lim’s next short-term goal? Breeding a new generation of Malaysian sturgeon fish.
“One of our objectives is to have a local tropical breed of sturgeon within Malaysia. But the thing that we are facing right now is that we cannot find any male fish on our farm. So what we are looking at in the future is importing male sperm to fertilise our female eggs and create our own local breed,” he says.
Although they have been lucky to have been able to breed sturgeon with only the aid of mother nature and local temperatures, getting a more even gender distribution of fish in the future will require investing in a temperature-controlled facility (as the spawning process requires much colder temperatures). This also means that the brand’s operational costs will go up.
But in keeping with the idea of a truly-Malaysian brand of sturgeon and caviar, Lim admits this is not a deterrent at all, especially as he has his sights on an even bigger project to fully capture the potential of sturgeon farming in Malaysia.
“Not many people know that sturgeon collagen is significantly better than shark collagen. So right now we are focusing on the caviar, but in the long run, when we are able to increase our scale, we will look at beauty products and supplements as well,” he says optimistically.
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