Sun, 05 Jan 2003

Fresh fish in city? Dream on, they're frozen for weeks

Evi Mariani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

If you are a big fan of sushi or sashimi, or have a taste for seafood and live in Jakarta, you will need to make a real effort to enjoy the best.

For the best seafood, especially sushi and sashimi (both made from raw fish), sea produce that is fresh from the sea is an absolute necessity. Most Jakartans think it is easy to find fresh sea produce because Jakarta is a coastal city.

The truth is it is not easy to find.

Jakarta, home to at least 8.3 million people, received 48.82 million kilograms of fish in 2001. Sea produce comes from various sources, mainly the Muara Angke, Muara Baru, Kamal Muara and Sunda Kelapa fish markets, all in North Jakarta.

Sunda Kelapa, which used to be the central fish market in the city until the late 1960s, receives sea produce that is transported overland from outside Jakarta. The other three markets receive their supplies from fishermen who use motor vessels or boats with outboard engines.

Although most of the catch in these three markets comes directly from the fishermen, it has already been frozen inside the ships' freezers for days, or even weeks.

Koma -- a shipowner from Serang, Banten, who has been in the fish business in Jakarta since the 1960s -- said his motor vessel had just berthed in Muara Baru after being at sea for 32 days.

"We even had to spend Idul Fitri at sea," he said.

The motor vessel, named Marcelina, has a crew of 10, and catches mackerel and tuna using large casting nets in the deep sea.

That morning, they had just sailed as far as the waters off Kalimantan, catching four tons of fish that were ready for auction at the Muara Baru fish market.

According to Koma, the average cost of a round-trip sailing for one ship is Rp 20 million (about US$2,250). The cost is made up of automotive diesel, which can amount to as much as 6,000 liters, hundreds of ice blocks for preserving the catch and other operational needs.

Due to the relatively high cost and the kinds of fish caught, which are found only in the deep sea, they cannot sail for only a day or two, but require at least 30 days at sea.

Aside from the fishermen who go to sea to catch fish, there are also middlemen who buy sea produce from fishermen on islands such as Bangka and then sail to Muara Angke to sell it. The produce involved includes squid and fish such as pari (rayfish), cucut (hammerhead shark), other types of shark and ekor kuning (yellowtail).

Of course, there is also sea produce from boats that go to sea at night and return in the morning. But because the boats are smaller than the ships, they cannot go very far.

Moreover, according to Na'an, a member of the production staff at the Jakarta Fisheries Agency, most of the boats are not equipped for catching large fish.

For example, Agus and his friends, fishermen from Indramayu, West Java, catch fish every afternoon using a boat. That morning, they were just back from Damar Island waters, Seribu Islands, 20 kilometers away from the Muara Angke shore, bringing with them a catch of 15 kilograms of teri nasi (a fish that is only a little bigger than a rice grain).

Knowing that fish in the markets are frozen instead of fresh, how can you satisfy your sophisticated needs?

You can always dine out in one of the high-end restaurants in Jakarta. Most such eateries use fresh fish rather than the frozen variety.

For example, Asuka, a Japanese restaurant at JW Marriott Hotel in South Jakarta, serves sushi and sashimi, made of live fish imported from Japan. But, of course, everything comes at a price.

Mellani Solagratia, a public relations officer for the hotel, said that the price of two pieces of sushi ranged between Rp 25,000 (about US$2.8) and Rp 90,000, while a set of seafood teppanyaki cost Rp 225,000 for one person.

Compare the price of the teppanyaki set to prices of between Rp 10,000 and Rp 20,000 for grilled fish (frozen), rice and a beverage for one person in the food stalls at Muara Angke fish market.

But if you prefer grilled fresh fish, you should go to sea fishing yourself or pay someone to do that for you. Or you can go to the Muara Angke fish market and ask for real fresh fish. If you are lucky, there may be some fishermen who happen to just have caught a few kilograms of fresh kerapu (grouper).

But does the fact that fresh sea produce is difficult to find in Jakarta make us stop eating it? Not necessarily so.

Many Jakartans have eaten seafood dishes from frozen sea produce all their lives. So far, we rarely hear anyone complaining.

As long as the fish still have red gills, they are still edible and delicious. And they are also still rich in protein, although not so much as the fresh ones.

Tina, the owner of a travel agency, who frequents the Muara Angke fish market, said she still liked to buy fish at the market even though they were not as fresh as she previously thought.

"They taste delicious, anyway. And, of course, they are cheaper than the fish in other markets," she said.

It seems that she is right. The sea produce in the fish markets may not be as fresh as you think. But in this metropolitan city, it is as fresh as it can be.