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The fish that got away is now swimming back to popularity
By Tan Weiyun

After disappearing from dinner tables for almost three decades, sisai bass is back, but people seem to have forgotten how good it tastes.

“We didn’t sell a single bass during Spring Festival,” said Yang Jiyong, general manager of Shanghai Sisai Bass Aquatic Co.

Songjiang-farmed sisai bass, 17 centimeters long and about 100 grams in weight, is famous for its succulent, oily meat and lack of excess boniness.

The orange branchial arches near its breathing gills give it the appearance of having an extra set of gills — hence the name sisai, which translates as “four gills” in Chinese.

It has been regarded as one of China’s “famous four freshwater fish” since the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD). Different dynasties recorded the fish delicacy and how it was served to emperors. Poets wrote tributes to the dish.

The list of notables who praised its delicious texture included the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799), Kunqu Opera master Yu Sulu (1847-1930) and former US President Richard Nixon when he visited China. In 1986, when the retinue of visiting Queen Elizabeth II asked for the fish to be served to her, none could be found.

‘Find the fish’

As a migratory fish, the life cycle of the sisai bass involves both seawater and fresh water. Every year, the fish migrated from the East China Sea into the rivers and canals of Songjiang. Then, in the mid-1980s, the fish seemed to disappear.

In 2000, a campaign began to rescue the fish. Aquatic experts from Fudan University launched a “find the fish” project in eight provinces along the eastern coastline. The two-year program discovered three remaining schools of wild bass.

In 2003, researchers successfully developed a system for large-scale farming of the fish, and two years later the technique was patented.

In 2006, Sisai Bass Aquatic Co was set up in Songjiang, becoming China’s largest research and cultivation center for the species.

But the homecoming has been far from enthusiastic. The fish, now swimming back to the rivers and canals of Songjiang, seems to be getting the cold shoulder from diners, despite widespread media accounts in 2010 about its return.

“More than 30 newspapers came to Songjiang to report about the fish, and orders swarmed in from various parts of the country,” Yang said of a craze that ended as quickly as it started. “We were not fully prepared to deal with the situation at that time.”

It’s an uphill swim. One obstacle is high price. A bass normally costs more than 300 yuan (US$49).

Price the obstacle

“It’s not a fish that an ordinary family can afford,” said Chen Jie, general manager of the Baolong Garden Hotel, which was among the district’s first to put sisai bass back on the menu.

The hotel said it has sometimes sold 50-70 bass during busy stretches, but at the recent Spring Festival holiday, it sold only 10.

“Most of the orders came from business banquets,” he said. “Family diners seldom order the dish.”

A mainly business clientele during a period of government-imposed austerity on public displays of wealth isn’t a promising prospect.

Only two other local hotels offer the bass on the menu. Live fish are also available at the Songjiang Center of Good Quality Agricultural Products.

Shen Siming, director of Shanghai’s Cooking Association, said the high price of the fish is caused by its long breeding cycle of more than nine months, its diet of fresh shrimp and the strict controls imposed on the quality of water that can be used in its breeding.

Sisai Bass Aquatic owns a 20-hectare bass farm in Shihudang Town. It breeds about 100,000 bass fry each year.

“The market cannot consume so much of the fish,” Yang said. “Our company has been operating at a loss.”

Cooking methods

Cooking is another big problem. Bass is a hard fish to bring to perfection at the dinner table. Traditional chefs who specialized in sisai cooking and the methods they used have largely passed out of practice.

Local chefs in Songjiang who are trying to revive interest in the fish have come up with two basic recipes — salt-roasted bass and bass soup.

“It has great potential,” said the Cooking Association’s Shen. “This is the first step in reviving the popularity and appreciation of the fish. At the same time, new breeding techniques must be developed to lower the cost. When that all comes together, sisai will truly be swimming back to dining tables.”

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