Maw-numental Changes: Past and Present of Fish Maw

by Elliott James Ong (Yale-NUS College)

Is fish maw a luxury food item restricted to the tables of the wealthy, or has the status of this prized delicacy changed over time?

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw
The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

Freshly gutted swim bladder of a fish, 2020. Photo by Elliot James Ong.

This is the swim bladder of a fish, otherwise known as fish maw. Thrown away as waste in most cultures, it is prized as a delicacy in Chinese cuisine.

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

Newspaper cutting of fish maw from the 2000s, 2020. Photo by Elliot James Ong.

Looking through newspaper articles, fish maw appeared in articles of the Straits Times as early as 1950 as a luxury food item. It is hard to find fish maw being used in home recipes of that era, except in recipes for fish maw soup which is consumed for its perceived health benefits. Even in recent years, fish maw is still praised for its medicinal value like in this newspaper article.

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

A very expensive fish maw reserved for a customer, 2020. Photo by Elliot James Ong.

Due to its medicinal properties and unique texture, fish maw can be very expensive. This shopkeeper proudly shows off one fish maw which costs S$800 per kilo and was reserved by a customer for a special occasion. However, not all maws are this expensive and only the premium grades are sold for such staggering amounts.

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

Dried (left) and fried (right) fish maws for sale, 2020. Photo by Elliot James Ong.

The price of fish maw can vary widely depending on whether it is dried or deep-fried, the species it comes from and how big it is. Generally, the bigger the maw, the higher the price; However, there are exceptions to the rule.

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

Colourful selection of fish at Jurong Fishery Port, 2020. Photo by Elliot James Ong

Premium grade fish maws that fetch high prices usually come from large fishes such as Nile Perch and Totoaba that are harvested in faraway places. That being said, nowadays there are many cheaper varieties of maw on the market. Some fish maws being sold even come from species that can easily be found in local markets, including varieties of red snapper, called Ang Goi (“Crimson Snapper” in Hokkien) and Ang Sai (“Emperor Red Snapper” in Hokkien).

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

Typical dried goods stall at Albert Centre Wet Market, 2020. Photo by Elliot James Ong.

Albert Centre Wet Market is one of the biggest marketplaces for dried goods in Singapore. There is a type of maw for everyone, with prices ranging from S$3 to S$35 per 100g. According to shopkeepers, the clientele consists mainly of home cooks.

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

Mdm Lin Siew Shian showing off her cookbooks, 2020. Photo by Elliot James Ong.

Mdm Lin Siew Shian, 91 and a home cook of over 40 years, can attest to the use of fish maw in home-cooking. “It is cooked all year round for family members…for the health benefits, but of course people eat it more during festive periods” she says.

The Past and Present Status of Fish Maw

Guan’s mee pok with slivers of fish maw, 2017. Image from: Misstamchiak

Recently, fish maw has become more widely available. The greatest example of that is this bowl of noodles. Not too long ago, some mee pok stalls have decided to grace their humble hawker dish with slivers of fish maw - finally and definitively upsetting its upper-class status.

Elliott James Ong (Yale-NUS College)

Elliott James Ong is an Environmental Studies major whose interest lies in a wide range of topics including the wildlife trade and its relation to food history. This photo essay led him to work on characterising dried seafood species traded in Singapore and Malaysia. He believes that understanding societal and cultural attachments to certain products is vital in ensuring wildlife conservation is both ethical and inclusive.

Established in 2011, through a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore, Yale-NUS College is a leading liberal arts and sciences college in Asia, with a residential programme that integrates living and learning. Drawing on the resources and traditions of its founding universities, a Yale-NUS education promotes broad-based interdisciplinary learning across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities complemented by depth of expertise in one’s major

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