Seafood has never been my first choice of a meal. Perhaps not even second, or third. The only time I seek it out is when I’m eating sushi, and even then, my palate is limited to various fish, prawns, or crabs.
So, imagine my surprise when a trip to Pavilion Bukit Jalil to try a 4-month-old fresh and healthy seafood restaurant, Nelayanku, changed my perspective.
The place is brightly-lit and largely stark-white, giving the impression that you’re walking into a sterile and health-focused environment.
While not necessarily descriptors you’d attribute to seafood, it’s quite in line with what Nelayanku wants to achieve. It aims to offer customers an accessible place to enjoy fresh, healthy, and natural seafood dishes without paying a premium.
There are also blue bubble accents used to emphasise its sea-themed design, along with wave-like decals on its glass walls and a huge 3D Finding Nemo mural that was handpainted for RM50K.
It was a quieter night when we visited, so we were seated quickly and provided with the menu, which was fairly extensive in terms of fish-centric dishes.
We went with the Nelayanku team’s recommendations, and while waiting for our food, we got to know Raymond Tea, founder of the restaurant.
He took to aquaculture like a fish to water
This isn’t Raymond’s first rodeo, it turned out. He’s been in the aquaculture industry since 2001, founding Aqua Ceria Group, a group of companies in the aquaculture industry, and DTS Home Mart, an online seafood market that supplies to 5-star hotels, and restaurants, including Nelayanku now, along the way.
Altogether, under his wing (or should we say fin?) are fish farms, feed supply, seafood processing and supply, seafood trading and exporting, online retail for fresh, frozen, and ready-to-cook/eat/heat seafood products.
His long-standing love and passion for the aquaculture and seafood industry seem fated, seeing as he grew up in a fishing village.
There, he often savoured fresh seafood. It was caught by his grandfather, who would be out at sea from dawn to dusk, and cooked into soup by his grandmother. Whenever in the kitchen, young Raymond would observe his grandmother’s skills.
These memories live on within him, now shared with the rest of us in every bowl of fish soup served by Nelayanku.
The restaurant prides itself on its natural and healthy, MSG-free pure fish bone broth that’s simmered for 8 hours. Almost every soup or gravy-based dish on the menu is built on this foundation.
From there, the team exercised creativity, coming up with Golden Soup (pumpkin mixed with the classic soup base), curry, and asam pedas broths, to name a few.
We tried the Fisherman Golden Soup, curry, and asam pedas dishes for mains, and each bite was flavourful. The fish meat that had been stewing in each broth was tender and as juicy as fish meat can be, but didn’t have a “fishy” smell or aftertaste at all.
Fun fact: The Giant Tiger Grouper used in some dishes was the 2018 champion when the team submitted it for an annual local competition called Fish King – Giant Tiger Grouper Tasting Competition (translated from Mandarin). There, a fish gets its external measurements taken, then is brought into the kitchen for slaughter in order to do a nutritional breakdown test. It is then boiled with no other additives for the judges to taste. If it satisfies in all categories, there’s high chance to win.
For sides, we tried the three versions of fish skewers (be warned that the hot and spicy one really has a kick), Myfisherman Wing (think chicken wings but with a fish’s pectoral fin flesh), Fish Otak-Otak (cubed), and Golden Right Leg (battered and deep-fried prawn shells with legs).
While Nelayanku’s main dishes are more familiar comfort food, some of these side dishes emphasise how dedicated the restaurant is to bringing seafood into recipes where they’re rarely seen.
Beyond that though, they’re also committed to maximising every part of the fish possible.
All is fish that comes to his net
The meat of the fish goes into a variety of dishes, dried swim bladders make up the fish maw delicacy, fish heads are used in curries, steamed, or put in a soup, and the bones are the key to their classic fish bone broth base.
Scales are also essentially made edible here. To be more specific, the scales of the fish are processed to extract their collagen, which is then used to make jellies of various flavours. When we tried them, we were surprised that there was no trace of fish at all.
Unlike agar-agar or gelatine though, these literally melt in room temperature. Thus, they have to be kept frozen until consumption to retain their initial firmness.
“We tried to make products from fish scales five years ago. We boiled it, double-boiled it, simmered it overnight, all ended up a fail, fail, fail. They were fishy, and didn’t have a nice texture,” Raymond recalled.
It was only last year that they finally got their desired result that we tasted that night, but they’ll continue to improve on its nutritional value, flavours, and more.
A question in the back of my mind as we dined and chatted was, why are they going the extra mile to serve this variety of seafood dishes?
For one, aquaculture isn’t easy. While most factors can be controlled with SOPs, rearing living organisms still comes with sudden challenges that could disrupt an entire supply.
Even after a successful batch though, there’s no guarantee that it will sell well. “When the market is good, there’s no problem [for selling]. Sometimes there’s even fish shortage, and the price will go up,” Raymond told us.
“But when there’s an oversupply of fish, the price goes down, sometimes even lower than your cost of production.”
These market inconsistencies were what pushed Raymond to start Nelayanku, in order to take back a semblance of control over the supply chain. He shared that their tagline was along the lines of, “we no longer sell fish as fish, but fish as food”.
By establishing his own supply and demand network, he envisions a day when he no longer has to rely on middlemen, thus benefitting his company (controlled costs, for example), his customers (consistently high quality seafood), and their associate fishermen (guaranteeing them sales at fair prices for better livelihoods).
Simply put, Raymond is in a position where he knows the industry’s ups and downs like the back of his hand. Doing their best to ensure that the products’ potential is maximised is thus the right way to truly appreciate the amount of effort that stakeholders, himself included, have put into ensuring quality seafood can be produced.
You need to bait the hook to catch the fish
At the end of our 2-hour visit, I was convinced that Raymond’s passion was evident in every decision he made.
Though Nelayanku brings the benefit of another revenue stream for the entrepreneur, his dedication and goals go far beyond, so much so that it almost feels wrong to call Nelayanku just another seafood restaurant.
Raymond and his team embody the fighting spirit of fishermen who go out to sea every day without knowing where the fish are, or the assurance that they’ll get a successful catch. Yet the fishermen remain driven simply by determination to do their best.
Likewise, Nelayanku is trying to turn a niche into something more widely accepted in Malaysia’s urban F&B scene. Some of their products even attempt to challenge the boundaries of what we’d normally think is edible.
Considering the years of R&D the team has put into making them not just palatable, but delicious, it’s clear that the phrase “giving up” is not in their dictionary. Instead, they work to educate customers.
“Life is like the ocean”, the restaurant’s menu quotes, and should we ever need a moment of respite from the ups and downs of life, Nelayanku is an anchor in the middle of the city, ready to welcome us with hot, comforting fish bone broth.