The busiest section at the Satok weekend market in Kuching, Sarawak is at the fish section, and there is only one fish that everyone is interested in – terubuk. It’s known mostly for its bones – loads and loads of fine bones criss-crossing – but those in the know patiently pick through because the reward is firm, tender, fatty, sweet flesh. It’s also found in Peninsular Malaysia, but terubuk is synonymous with Sarawak.
I had my first terubuk fish from a Ramadhan bazaar – grilled till charred, and accompanied with sambal. It’s also really good in asam curry because of its high lemak content. In Kuching, I have had it steamed and deep-fried. But the most famous way of preparing terubuk in Sarawak is by salting it. At the Kuching airport, you’ll see travellers with boxes fashioned like a bag, complete with raffia handles, and chances are they are carrying ther precious cargo of salted terubuk fish.
I have heard of the salted terubuk from Satok but was never particularly interested because I assumed it was the typical salted fish. It wasn’t until I went to the Satok market that I realised the fish is salted differently. The usual way of salting fishes in Malaysia is by salting them, and then drying them in the sun for days. In Sarawak, they gut and clean the terubuk fish, and then liberally rub it with fine salt. The traders’ instructions was to just wash off the salt, and freeze the fish if we do not cook it within a week. Most people just fry the salted terubuk fish, but some also steam it.
The salted terubuk taste like salt baked fish… it’s not intensely salty like the typical dried salted fish, but a lot gentler. Because the terubuk is so rich and lemak, the salt does not overwhelm its sweetness but complements it. The flesh remains moist and tender, and it is quite a treat. Now I understand why the customers at the Satok market buys the salted terubuk so eagerly, and why they place such huge orders.
I only bought 3 salted terubuk fishes, even as I was wondering why the others were buying by the dozens. The salted terubuk comes in various sizes, so prices vary. But we found out that the Sunday prices are a lot steeper than the weekday prices, just so you know. The vendors here also sell terubuk fish roe, and (frozen) unsalted terubuk fish with and without roe. My colleague paid RM25 for an unsalted terubuk fish with roe, but there was no roe to be found when she cut open the fish….again, just so you know.
Luckily, the vendors were a lot more reliable when it came to recommending their favourite way of eating salted terubuk. I just sliced some shallots, bird’s eye chilli and squeezed lime juice over them. Let this mixture sit fir ten minutes, and pour over the hot fried salted terubuk. I have also found that I prefer lime juice to kalamansi lime juice for this fish.
I also had with an accompaniment made of belimbing buluh (carambola), garlic and taucheo, and that was also really good. Salted or not, the terubuk is still full of bones. They are mostly fine fine bones though, so I just pick out whatever I can, and chew on the rest. With terubuk, it’s all about how willing you are to get through the bones to get to the bounty.