Archive for July, 2010

How fishsticks are made

July 29, 2010

Yesterday, Radja Pasaribu took me on a tour of Fega Marikultura’s processing plant, where dozens of part-time workers dressed in rubber boots and hairnets prepared three tons of freshly-slaughtered barramundi for shipment to Bali, Singapore, Australia, and Los Angeles.

Radja and I donned scrubs, washed our hands, and strapped on face masks. I reached for the cloth mask that matched my blue scrubs and hairnet, but Radja stopped me.

“Here.” He tossed me a small green mask wrapped in plastic. I hesitated, but Radja urged me on: “Sure, they say they wash these, but…” He shook his head doubtfully. “The disposable ones are more sanitary.” I didn’t move. “You know, when you wash a face-mask, you have to treat it with sterilizing chemicals. And then you need to build a wastewater treatment plant. And a treatment plant is very expensive, maybe two, three million US dollars. And it uses a lot of energy, and a lot of water.” Touché. I unwrapped the papery green mask.

On the floor, we confronted the umami miasmi of fish flesh. “Hey,” Radja quipped, “at least it’s not rotten.” I thanked my stars for the mask, disposable or not.

In one room, workers beheaded fish, collecting the heads in a bin for fishhead soup. The entrails and bones, in another bin, would make fish meal to feed yet more fish; the scales, crushed for pearlescense used in lipstick; and even the skin, Radja claimed, could be used as a leather substitute.

“And the waste meat is used for value-added products,” Radja added. “You know, fish sticks.” Ah, yes. Value-added.

Radja was also keen to show off the plant’s ongoing renovations: new light fixtures and hygienic wall paneling for improved safety for workers and consumers. All in all it appeared a humming (if humdrum) operation. The plant is ISO 22000 Food Safety certified and uses every part of the fish.

But the processing plant is only 1/3 of Fega Marikultura. Processing fish, at least on this scale, is much less resource- and energy-intensive than raising them (transportation, I’m not sure… Radja says less than 1% of these fish will be consumed locally, on Java or Bali. Some of these barramundi will fly across the Pacific to a distributor in LA, and from there who-knows-where-else?) The other 2/3, the hatchery and farm, are waiting on Pulau Jukung. But rough seas and stormy weather kept the boat at bay this morning, so I won’t reach the island farm until next week. Until then, dear readers, remember: just because it smells fishy doesn’t mean it is…

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Chicken or Fish?

July 25, 2010

“Chicken or fish?” asked my flight attendant. I was about to ask what kind of fish, or whether it was wild-caught or farmed, or where it came from, but then I realized these were rather stupid questions to ask a flight attendant, even if she was inordinately pretty and uncommonly accommodating. And that’s saying something, because every Singapore Airlines flight attendant is pretty and accommodating.

“I’ll have the fish, please.” It came with steamed rice and vegetables, cheese and crackers, a side of potato salad and tiny shrimp, a cup of spring water, and a glass of white wine. For airline food, not bad — although every bite reminded me of the scene in Airplane! where incapacitating food poisoning befalls all the passengers who foolishly choose fish. Next time, I told myself, ask for a vegetarian option.

People often ask if I am a vegetarian; I am not. I eat meat on occasion, if it was raised and slaughtered under humane and ecologically-responsible conditions. This usually means I eat meat rarely (no pun) and when I do it is relatively expensive; but it also means every time I eat meat it is a truly delightful experience. For a long time I ate seafood under the misguided assumption that it is more sustainable than land-raised meat. But harvesting seafood can be ecologically devastating, not to mention painful and degrading for the animals themselves, their aquatic companions, and human communities.

It is easy to despair over the exploitation of people, animals, and ecosystems that the hungry stomachs of humankind appear to demand as sacrificial fodder. Yet if we all boycotted every agricultural industry with a bad reputation, we might not starve, but we’d certainly be peckish, probably anemic, and definitely bored. Call me an optimist, but I believe there are better alternatives on the metaphorical table: food that fills our stomachs instead of turning them, food that elicits sighs of satisfaction instead of groans of guilt, food that nourishes the soil and water as well as our bodies and spirits. Fortunately, I have a friend who claims he runs one of the most sustainable aquaculture operations in Southeast Asia. So, dear readers, for the next month I’ll be staying on Sofjan Alisjahbana’s fish farm, Pulau Jukung, in the Pulau Seribu (Thousand Islands) region of Indonesia. If you’re curious, concerned, or just plain hungry, follow me.

Lagi pulang ke pulau-pulau, I push on, push on, keeping a log…

July 18, 2010

Here we (archipela)go again.

barramundi