Eat To Live

Serve fish chilled, with scales on

This is an old Teochew recipe, using a fish that is not always found in the market.

It is the grey mullet, or "oh her" in Teochew, which is traditionally steamed and eaten with a piquant tau cheo or salted soya bean dip.

What is unusual is that this mullet is served chilled after being cooked with its scales on. I do this too with sea bass, which I roast with its scales on, to protect its delicate flesh; I do the same with ikan terubok or shad, that other hard-to- find and richly flavoured fish.

I like cooking fish with its scales on. Apart from the convenience, the scales protect the fish during the cooking. You need not worry about it being dried out - the scales act like a foil wrap, leaving the flesh within moist and sweet.

  • Fish scales are edible but there is the risk of choking on them

  • Grey mullet is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help to reduce one's risk of cardiovascular diseases.

    This fish is an excellent source of protein. It also has a low mercury content.

    Nevertheless, the moderate consumption of all fish types is the key to enjoying the nutritional benefits of fish while minimising our risk exposure to pollutants or contaminants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are industrial chemicals that can harm our health.

    Try to eat a variety of fish twice a week.

    If you are preparing fish for children, pregnant or nursing women, it is best to trim off the fatty parts such as the belly, the top back and the dark meat along the side, as well as the internal organs. These are the parts where toxins or chemicals may potentially accumulate.

    Fish scales are edible but you run the risk of choking on them. There are also no studies on the nutritional value of fish scales.

    As for fish skin, it is edible if it is properly washed and cooked.

    The United-States based Mayo Clinic says that the skin of oily fish such as salmon contains omega-3 fatty accids.

    However, it is advisable to remove the skin if the fish is to be eaten by children, pregnant or nursing women as contaminants such as PCBs usually build up just underneath the skin.

    Bibi Chia

    Principal dietitian, Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre

Mullet is flavourful, whichever way you cook it. I buy it whenever I see it in the market and I merely steam it. At the end of cooking, I just peel off the skin, together with the scales, leaving behind soft and silky flesh.

It is always served with a sour dip to offset the fish's rich flavour, a change from the usual fried fish.

We do need many ways of cooking fish, for it is a food that we should eat several times a week.

Despite the simple treatment, the flesh of the mullet is extremely rich and tasty, full of omega-3 fatty acids.

If you are lucky enough to get a fish with globules of fat in its stomach cavity, rejoice, for it is both tasty and healthy. Like avocado and nuts, fish fat is healthy.

The tau cheo dip makes a perfect match. Comprising salted soya beans, lime juice, shredded ginger and sharp red chillies, it balances out the strong earthy flavour of the fish. I like the dip so much that I also use it to top plain steamed lady's fingers.

In this recipe, I also offer a green chilli, lime and garlic dip that is excellent with fish, steamed or roasted. Inspired by the Thais who serve a steamed fish with the same chilli and lime flavours, I leave the dip uncooked to get the full strength of the garlicky and lime flavours.

Put the sliced ingredients together and mix just before eating to get a balance of sweet sour and salty flavours, perfect for fish.

•Sylvia Tan is a freelance writer and cookbook author. Her previous Eat To Live recipes can be found in two cookbooks, Eat To Live and Taste.


Steamed mullet with tau cheo dip (right) and green lime, chilli and garlic dip (left). ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG


1 grey mullet, about 800g, stomach cleaned but with the scales left on.


2 tbsp salted soya beans, whole beans and liquid

Juice from 1 large green lime

2 red chilli padi, sliced

1 thumb-sized piece of old ginger, peeled and thinly shredded

½ tsp sugar or to taste, optional


Juice from 1 large green lime

I large green lime, thinly sliced

2 green chillis, sliced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thinly

1 tbsp fish sauce or to taste

1 tsp sugar or to taste

  • NUTRITION INFORMATION (Per serving: 277g)

  • Energy: 157.7 kcal

    Protein: 16.8g

    Total fat: 6.9g

    Saturated fat: 2.7g

    Dietary fibre: 2.3g

    Carbohydrate: 9.5g

    Cholesterol: 26.6mg

    Sodium: 457.2mg


• Bring a wok - it should be large enough for the fish - half-filled with water to the boil.

• When the water boils, put the fish on a plate and steam, covered, for 15 minutes. Remove and leave to cool in the fridge.

• In the meantime, make the two dips. First, mix all the ingredients for the tau cheo dip together and taste to adjust the seasonings. Leave aside.

• To make the other dip, add the fish sauce, lime juice and sugar to the garlic slices and mix well, adjusting for taste.

• Add the lime slices and green chilli just before serving to preserve the bright green colour.

• Serve the mullet chilled, with the two dips in bowls for diners to spoon out according to their preference.

• Add some fresh salad to make this a well-balanced meal.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2016, with the headline 'Serve fish chilled, with scales on'. Print Edition | Subscribe