These four fishes are grouped together because they are all known as “Chior” 鲳 by the Teochews/Hokkiens, although scientifically, they belong to different families. They are similar in size and shape but quite different in flavour and texture.
The pomfret is a prized fish locally and is specially regarded by the Teochew as the best food fish bar none. We Teochews even have a saying about marriage and good food that goes like this:
Ai chua ngia bou, sou lak nior! Ai jia hor her peh dou chior.
The literal translation being “If you want a beautiful wife, sou lak nior! (An ancient, voluptuous Chinese beauty) If you want to eat good fish, white bellied pomfret!
The strange thing is, pomfrets seem to only achieve such legendary status with the Teochews in particular and the Chinese race in general. You hardly see them being used in western cooking. In Australia, the word pomfret is used to refer only to the black pomfret and the revered silver pomfret doesn’t even get an entry in the Western Australian Museum’s “Field Guide to Marine Fishes of Tropical Australia and South East Asia”. 4th Ed!
There is really only one way to cook a fresh silver pomfret and that is to steam it Teochew style (see my recipe). If the pomfret is less than fresh, then it is usually fried first and then cooked in a sauce or topped with sambal chilli.
In Singapore, the Chinese Silver Pomfret, 斗鲳 (Dòu chāng) is preferred over the Silver pomfret 白鲳 (Bái chāng). It is said that its flesh is a bit more flavourful and the fish is usually larger in size, so it is great for banquets.
The best pomfrets come from local waters but these are rare. I have come across pomfrets which have been caught by overnight fishermen being sold at the wet market for $50/kg. You can expect to pay $35/kg for a excellent quality pomfret. Pomfrets from the 泗水(Surabaya) region are also considered very good eating fish. This fish are usually wild caught.
The way to pick a good pomfret, aside from the usual firmness of the fish and colour of the gills is to give the gill covers behind the eye a little squeeze. With the good ones, you will get a bit of pastel orange fluid coming out behind the gill covers. With the better quality pomfrets, you should still see much of the scales intact. These are usually caught in cages and are less traumatised. The ones without scales are probably caught using drift nets and are considered less ideal.
The above photo shows the difference between the Chinese Silver Pomfret and the Silver pomfret. The Chinese Pomfret tends to be slightly broader (top and bottom) and the lower jaw is the same length as the upper jaw. They also tend to be darker grey in colour but this can vary.
Black Pomfrets are quite different from Chinese Silver and Silver pomfrets. For steaming, the Teochews prefer the former but a fresh black pomfret can taste very nice when steamed as well. The flesh is not as fine as the Silver Pomfret and a good Black Pomfret from the 泗水(Surabaya) region can have a very distinct fragrance. My preference for cooking this fish is to fry the fish first and then cooking it in a black bean and chilli sauce. This fish is usually wild caught.
So far we have covered the Chinese, silver and black pomfrets. Now we turn our attention to the “golden”pomfret 金鲳. The Chinese group these four fishes together because of their shape and size, but as we can see, they belong to different families.
Most of the Snubnose Pompanos that you find at the wet markets are farmed. They are not prized as highly as the other pomfrets as the flesh is firm and not as delicate as the Chinese Pomfret. I like to simply coat the fish with salt and tumeric powder and shallow fry it in a wok. Large sized pompanos can be filleted and the flesh used to cook porridge.