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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.