Empurau: One Very Expensive Fish

The Most Expensive Edible Fish in Malaysia Comes From Malaysian Borneo

Kelah fish in Malaysian Borneo
••• Kelah fish in Malaysian Borneo. Simon Long / Getty Images

Indigenous to Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, empurau is the most expensive edible fish in Malaysia, with a reputation that reaches all the way around the world.

Although much of the Western world doesn’t consider carp a delicacy, large empurau are prized for their rich, delicate flesh and firm texture. Empurau get their unique taste from a diet of special fruit that falls from trees into the rivers.

And while Dayak fishermen in the jungles of Borneo once caught empurau frequently, they did so only to put food on the table.

Today, empurau are fished solely for a profit; most local fishermen wouldn't dream of eating something that represents months' worth of salary!

Empurau, and other valued fish native to Sarawak, are threatened by unregulated fishing and are becoming more difficult to find. A single prepared fish in a restaurant -- the same fish these indigenous people preferred to eat -- can cost between US $300 - $500!

What Is an Empurau?

Empurau are members of the tor tambroides species found throughout Southeast Asia, also known as kelah or belian in the Malay language.

Empurau are freshwater, bottom-feeding scavengers and sustain themselves on a diet of wild fruit known locally as buah kabong that falls from trees overhanging the jungle rivers. According to fans, the fish’s unique diet gives the flesh a sweet, delicate flavor that is completely unique.

The fish are considered so rare and tasty that they are referred to as "The Unforgettable" (wang bu liao) in Chinese.

The emuprau's shiny, attractive appearance and reputation for putting up a fierce fight have caused it to be sought after as an ornamental fish (symbol of good fortune). Across Asia, many species of carp are prized as auspicious symbols of good fortune, sometimes fetching surprisingly high prices.

How Much Does Empurau Cost?

A single one-kilogram (2.2-pound) empurau prepared in a restaurant can cost upwards of US $300.

While the price varies widely depending upon the quality and the weight of the fish, prices can exceed US $500 per kilogram. A one-kilogram empurau was purportedly sold in Ipoh, Malaysia, for US $400. The same customer claimed that they had paid US $560 for a one-kilogram fish in Kuala Lumpur!

The river, and even the stretch of that particular river, in which an empurau is caught makes a difference. Shorter empurau with white flesh are typically valued more than their red or copper-colored counterparts. Firmer flesh from fish over three kilograms in weight is preferred. Fish caught near Kapit also fetch a higher price.

In March 2016, the Borneo Post reported that a giant, 7.9-kilogram (17.4 pounds) empurau was sold by a fishmonger for the equivalent of US $1,940 in Malaysian ringgit!

Why Is Empurau So Expensive?

For starters, they are difficult to find. Empurau are indigenous to Sarawak, Borneo, and are found in the wild rivers. The species is threatened due to both overfishing -- a single fish could represent months of income for a family -- and habitat loss. Excessive logging, primarily to make way for palm-oil plantations, is a widespread problem in Malaysian Borneo.

The empurau do have one thing that works out in the interest of their survival: only larger empurau are considered valuable because smaller fish have a high fat content that makes the flesh too soft.

Can Empurau Be Farmed?

Attempts at farming and artificially raising empurau had little initial success. A collaborative aquaculture effort between Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, and the Sarawak government turned up some signs of hope for the species, however, results were limited.

LTT Aquaculture, a company in Sarawak, was rewarded a grant in 2012 by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation to research raising empurau in captivity. The company exports pond-raised empurau to buyers in Brunei, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, and China each week. Semi-wild empurau raised in ponds are slightly cheaper in restaurants than the wild-caught equivalent. The government hopes that one day empurau can become a significant, revenue-generating export for Sarawak.

Where to Try Empurau

If you’re looking to try a once-in-a-lifetime fish dinner, look for empurau in Kuching -- the capital of Sarawak -- on the menus of these restaurants:

  • Joyous Shanghai Restaurant on Jalan Pandungan
  • Huang Shang Huang Restaurant in RH Plaza
  • Bay Bridge Restaurant in Damai
  • Sweet Happiness Restaurant in Stutong, Tabuan Jaya

Empurau can also be found on menus in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. To ensure a good experience, contact the restaurant in advance to make arrangements and confirm availability.

For a much more affordable seafood experience in Kuching, visit the famous Top Spot Food Court on Jalan Padungan.