The allure of Ikan Toman

Kadot’s worker, Ahmad Rudy, scooping a fresh Toman fish for sale.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Wilfred Pilo

KUCHING, April 1: Ikan Toman, or snakehead fish, can be easily found in paddy fields, ponds, small streams and rivers. An Iban myth has it that they can also be found in the hollows of trees that contain water.


The Ibans call them ‘Ikan Toman’, while it is ‘Ikan Haruan’ to the Malays.

These aquatic creatures are much sought-after because besides their nutritional value, they are widely believed to have healing properties, too. That is why this fish tops the list of ‘recovery food’ for patients who have just undergone surgery. They believe the fish has something in them that can facilitate wounds healing relatively fast.

Old folks and traditional medicine men often advise people to eat Ikan Toman if they feel unwell. In fact, some pharmacies also sell Ikan Toman in tablet form.

Toman fish can survive on moist soil alone, and they are believed to have been in existence since the days of the dinosaurs. Anglers often catch them using fishing rods or nets in streams. Some use ‘bubu’ fish traps that are made of bamboo stems.

Kadot has been selling fish at Kota Sentosa Market for quite some time now.

DayakDaily recently spoke to Iban fishmonger Kadot Abong to get insights into the fish, which he has been selling for more than 10 years at Kota Sentosa Market. He gets his supply from local anglers, who catch them from streams and ponds around the 10th Mile area.

He revealed that Ikan Toman will be aplenty when the weather is good, but supplies take a dip when the weather is too wet (like during the ‘landas’ season) or too hot and dry.

“We always keep Toman alive for several days in huge plastic containers as customers always want them very fresh. But they cannot last longer than a week. They will die by then because of the chlorinated water and no food,” he said.

Kadot admitted that Ikan Toman fetches a good price of around RM40 per kilo, probably due to its sought-after healing properties. The biggest fish he has sold weighed about 3kg but most customers prefer smaller ones, those around 1kg.

Kadot’s worker, Ahmad Rudy, removing the scales off an Ikan Toman.

Interestingly, he noted, demand tended to be higher on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and initially he was puzzled by this.

“Later, I was told by my customers that patients usually have some form of surgery on these two days, and demand soars because of the fish’s healing properties. That’s what they told me,” he disclosed.

“For that reason, in some weeks I can sell some 10 kilos of them and very often run out of stock by Fridays.”

Kadot shared that some people bought the fish and reared them in small ponds. As for the Chinese, they sometimes buy them and simply release them back into the streams.

“I don’t know why or for whatever reason,” he said.

Cutting Toman fish into smaller pieces to make it easier for customers to cook later.

Toman fish is a predator, Kadot cautioned, and do eat other fish to survive. That is why businesses who rear freshwater fish for commercial purposes wail when Toman fish invades their premises.

His daughter Amelia, who helps him man their stall, shares some common ways the fish can be cooked.

Amelia revealed that her grandmother told her that they can be made into hot pepper fish soup; or steamed with ginger, lemongrass, wine and soya sauce; or marinated with salt, pepper, ginger, and lemongrass before cooking in bamboo stem; or marinated with salt, lemongrass, ginger, and garlic, then wrapped in ‘daun buan’ and grilled over a charcoal fire.

A traditional way to eat the it is just to grill the fish over a wood fire or charcoal fire and dip the cooked meat in a blended chilly sauce mixed with garlic, lemon, lime or vinegar before consuming.

“I like to marinate the cut fish meat with salt, pepper and garlic and then deep fry it. When that is done, just put the deep fried fish meat into boiling water that has a mixture of garlic, lemongrass, ginger, black pepper and coriander leaves (‘daun sup’),” she said.

Popular native-style dish of Toman fish cooked with ‘tempoyak’ or fermented durian paste.

“My grandmother told me that people also do turn the meat into fish balls or thinly slice them and cook together in rice porridge, complete with sliced ginger, garlic, drops of soya sauce, salt and pepper for flavour.”

Amelia is also aware of the purported healing properties the fish possesses as “my grandmother told me the clear, nourishing soup is good for healing of wounds and is especially good for women after delivery”.

Craving for a certain culinary dish, the DayakDaily reporter bought 500g of the fish and cooked it with ‘tempoyak’ (fermented durian paste). Eaten with steamed rice, it was a very appetising dish, indeed. — DayakDaily