This fish stew is one of the quintessential Peranakan dishes that reflects the flavors that make Nyonya cuisine unique: sour, salty, spicy, and fragrant. Seafood is a staple in Peranakan cuisine as the Straits Settlements were seaside communities. Since this fish dish is a mainstay found in many Peranakan restaurants, it is perhaps one of the most recognized dishes, but I have to admit that I am always a bit disappointed by their renditions; the tendency to add bunga kantan (wild ginger flower) attests that there can be too much of a good thing because it overpowers the light minty fragrance of the delicate daun kesum. During earlier days, bunga kantan was seasonal and thus not easily available, unlike nowadays. This herb was rarely added to the dish due to its price, making it too impractical and cost prohibitive for an often-served dish. To me, simplicity is best in this dish, just as it was served weekly in our household.
Its name in Baba Melayu can be confusing to some who are familiar with this dish. Many know it as Asam Pedas. But a fellow Baba on a Facebook group pointed out that Asam Pedas is the Malay version, which has a lighter and less fragrant sauce than the Nyonya version that is made with more root spice ingredients, hence making it more flavorful; this name confusion was also clarified by my Malacca cousin. So, in maintaining fidelity and authenticity, I have written down the dish’s true name.
Fresh fish works best in this dish, and it should be cooked whole or in large slices to seal in the moisture. You can use a mild-flavored medium-firm fish, like red snapper, tilapia, skate wing, or sea bass, but avoid oily or earthy-flavored fish like salmon and mackerel. You may find the various spice roots in the frozen section of Asian markets. The essential herb daun kesum or laksa leaves (photo) is also known as rau ram or “Vietnamese mint” and can be easily found in Vietnamese grocery and some Asian markets.
A true Peranakan meal would not be complete without Gerang Asam Ikan. As experts in preparing this dish, my grandmothers would only serve it when the fish from the open market was very fresh. Instinctively, they knew exactly how to produce the perfect balance of flavors and spices to complement the sea sweetness of the fish that plays the starring role. The skill needed to cook this dish perfectly was a true litmus test for a Nyonya. How the fish was poached and the vegetables cooked was a tall order for a lady to prove her worth to her family sitting around the dinner table. But a perfect rendition of this dish would speak volumes to the diner’s heart and meet one’s gastronomic approval, which in turn would bring joy to the cook herself.
Serves 4 to 6
Preparation time: 50 minutes
5 dried chili peppers, stemmed and seeded, or 1 tablespoon paste
1.5 centimeters (½ inch) turmeric root, peeled, or ¼ teaspoon powder
1.5 centimeters (½ inch) galangal root, peeled, or ¼ teaspoon powder
6 grams/½ teaspoon belacan (shrimp paste)
10 small (100 grams/ 3½ ounces) shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 lemongrass stalk, white part only, roughly chopped
3 candlenuts, shelled and crushed, or cashew or macadamia nuts (optional)
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons unseeded tamarind paste (4 tablespoons seeded paste), mixed well with 2½ cups hot water and strained to remove pulp
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
2 sprigs daun kesum or laksa leaves or Vietnamese mint (rau ram), plus more for garnish
2 medium Asian eggplants, cut into medium-size wedges
7 to 10 small whole okra (ladies fingers), stemmed
600 grams (1¼ pound) whole or thick fillets of threadfin fish (ikan kurau), cleaned, or any mild fish
- Pour enough hot water on dried chilis to cover and soak until they are soft. Drain. Process them in a food processor to a fine paste. Add the turmeric, galangal, belacan, shallots, lemongrass, and candlenuts. Process to a fine paste. Remove and set aside.
- In a pot on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the spice paste for 4 to 5 minutes until very aromatic but not browned. Add the tamarind water and bring to a boil. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more chili paste if not spicy enough. Add the salt and sugar (if using), or to taste—sugar is not necessary if the tamarind is sweet. Add the daun kesum, lower the heat to medium low, cover the pot with a lid, and simmer gently for 10 minutes.
- Raise the heat to medium high. Add the eggplant and simmer for 3 minutes until barely cooked. Add the okra and fish. Cover with the lid, lower the flame, and simmer gently until the fish is just cooked, about 3 minutes. Add a bit of water if the sauce is too thick. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and sugar if necessary.
- Remove and garnish with a few fresh daun kesum leaves on top of the fish. Serve immediately.