More than just fresh oysters at a Penang oyster farm

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

My early childhood days were filled with family weekends to the beach. We would swim, dig for lala and on occasions, arm ourselves with a screwdriver and hammer to chisel out oysters from rock surfaces. Some days we would also bag a few belangkas (horseshoe crabs) and hai ciau (axe clams). Those were the good old days when the shores of Penang were teeming with life and the waters, pristine.

Tanjung Bungah © Adrian Cheah

Tanjung Bungah © Adrian Cheah

My love for oysters since then has grown. I was excited to learn that in Penang – Pulau Betong in Balik Pulau to be exact – there is a well-established oyster hatchery. My friend, Audrey Lim made the necessary arrangements and we paid it a visit. It was such an eye opener as I discovered many wonderful things about oysters that day.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

We were greeted by Mr. Alan Wong, the Managing Director at Seaharvest Aquamarine (M) Sdn Bhd. He shared with us in detail the farming processes and we concluded our visit with a feast of delicious fresh oysters, born and bred in Penang.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

Did you know that a single female oyster can produce up to 50 million eggs each spawning season? In Penang, it is common to have two seasons a year, influenced greatly by the monsoon seasons. The size of an oyster egg is around 35 microns (note: the diameter of a human hair is about 75 microns). Slipper cupped oyster (Crassostrea iredalei / black scar) and lugubrious cupped oyster (Crassostrea belcheri / white scar) are two mangrove species cultivated here. Alan uses the names "black / white scars" to communicate with the local fisherfolk.

Penang oyster farm

Left: oyster eggs; right: oyster larvae under the microscope
Source: https://www.facebook.com/liveoyster/

Only three to four hours after fertilisation, the embryos would complete cell division and start to swim. To view them under the microscope was priceless, precious little jewels all busy swimming around.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

Do you know oysters are "vegan"? The oyster larvae are fed with phytoplanktons (monospecies, unicell) three times a day. Cultured at the hatchery, the phytoplanktons are commonly known as brown and green microalgaes. Measuring up to less than five micron, the phytoplanktons nourish the oyster larvae which will grow in size and mature within six months.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

They are then shipped to oyster farms for breeding. These two species are usually harvested around two years or so. Most oysters can live up to 20 years in captivity.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

The hatchery is currently capable of cultivating more than 10 million oyster seeds annually. It is the only oyster hatchery in Malaysia.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

What is so special about these two species? According to Alan, it takes only one year for them to achieve a suitable size for sale in Malaysia whereas it would take an average of three to four years in temperate countries for them to reach the same size (oysters would go dormant and hibernate during winter).

The Penang State government fully supports oyster farming as it is a green aquaculture industry that does not impact the environment. The food oysters consume is all from nature and because of its habitual nature as filter feeders (1 oyster  can filter 30 to 50 gallons of water a day), it can help to clean up the water sources by removing the suspended solid and reducing the BOD (biological oxygen demand). 

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

Oyster farming is a market with huge potential because most of the oysters consumed locally now are imported from countries like Australia and New Zealand. This can be lucrative for fisherfolk as it involves very low investment costs, low maintenance and encouraging returns.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

Having said that, can the quality of the oysters cultivated here compete with those flown in from abroad? Well, first let us look at the colour of the flesh. Because of the brown microalgaes they consumes here, their shade is slightly darker as compared to the pale imported oysters. The white scar offers more texture and is meatier in every bite. I just love it!

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

We came prepared with fresh lemon slices, Tabasco sauce and gin for that extra kick. As we indulged, we pleasantly surprised by the quality of the oysters. It was such a lovely feast! We also sampled the black scar that had a slightly softer texture. Both were enjoyable and had a mild taste of the ocean.

Oysters in Tasmania © Adrian Cheah

Oysters in Tasmania © Adrian Cheah

When I was in Tasmania, I had to visit their oyster bars. They served delicious fresh oysters that had a stronger taste of the ocean.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

One thing Alan showed me that put my mind at ease was that two days prior to our visit, he had placed the oysters through a depuration process to purge all impurities and microbes. The water in the tank even goes through ultraviolet light to reduce 99.9% of the microorganisms.

Penang oyster farm © Adrian Cheah

I strongly recommend Alan's fresh oysters, cultivated passionately with a low carbon footprint; they are cheaper than imported ones and above all, they are safe to eat and are tasty.

Gua Kepah © Adrian Cheah

Gua Kepah © Himanshu Bhatt

Let us remember something our pre-historic ancestors left behind some 5,000 years ago. Oyster consumption has always been a part of the people of this region. The proof lies in the huge shell middens left by hunter-gatherers, in a manner of speaking – the earliest known people of Penang in Guar Kepah, located in Seberang Perai. They loved oysters and clams so much some middens were said to have reached heights of six metres.

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Written by Adrian Cheah
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved
or otherwise credited

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Seaharvest Aquamarine (M) Sdn Bhd.
Lot 609, mukim 7, Pulau Betong. Balik Pulau, Penang
T: +6012 422 6666 (please call for an appointment)