Ikan Sambal

This recipe is quintessentially representative of Nyonya cooking due to the use of a full-flavored and spicy rempah (spice paste) as the stuffing for the simple fish. I recall eating this dish often for dinner when Mamah was alive, as this was one of the dishes in her extensive culinary repertoire. She used to stuff a whole fish with the spice paste and then pan-fry it until the fish was cooked through. I distinctly remember her tearing away pieces of the sambal-smeared flesh from the whole fish with her nimble fingers during dinner, the way most Peranakans used to eat during her time.

I recall a very touching story that Mamah once told me when I was still a preteen. During the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during the Second World War, there were many air raids that took place, and before such bombings occurred, sirens would go off as a warning. At one point, such raids had been taking place for a long period of time, preventing the inhabitants from leaving their homes for a few days. Needless to say, the local market had not opened during that time, and after a few days, people were desperate for food and other provisions.

After a brief period of quiet, the market was open again. Mamah went to the market in search of food for the family, and she went over to the fishmonger to barter over a piece of fish. Suddenly, the sirens started wailing and everyone panicked as they ran for cover to hide from the menacing airplanes. My grandmother froze, torn between running for her life and fending for her loved ones who were very hungry. In a split second, she grabbed the biggest fish on the cart and made a mad dash for home. When I heard the story, I marveled that an unassuming, small-framed woman had such tenacity to fight for survival under the most difficult circumstances. 

In this seafood recipe, the secret to the tasty stuffing is the use of small red onion (preferably Bombay onion) that has a certain sweetness, dried chili peppers for depth of flavor and spiciness, and tamarind paste, which is essential in bringing an acidic and sweet flavor profile to the mix. I have seen recipes that use ingredients that unnecessarily complicate the flavors, like fresh red chili peppers and lemongrass—I believe that this recipe is tasty enough with fewer ingredients, just as my grandmother used to prepare it. Since the fish has to cook for a long period of time, my grandmother would use an oilier type of fish, like chub or Indian mackerel (Malay: ikan kembong) or Torpedo Scad (ikan cencaru/cincaru), since the spice paste would keep the fish moist during the cooking process. However, other types of white firm-fleshed fish can be easily substituted.

I have written a simpler method where the chili paste can be served alongside pan-fried fillets. When you cook and serve this spicy dish, you will understand why this was a weekly staple in our family dinners, delicious enough to make you want to eat it with your fingers, Peranakan-style.

Serves 4 to 6

Preparation time: 45 minutes

15 dried chili boh or Kashmiri peppers, or chile puya, stemmed and seeded (or 3 tablespoons dried chili paste)

1 very large/250 grams (8 ounces) red onions (not shallots), peeled and coarsely chopped

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1½ teaspoon/18 grams belacan (shrimp paste), toasted

4 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying fish

1 tablespoon seedless tamarind pulp mixed with ½ cup hot water, strained to remove fiber

¾ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

400 grams (14 ounces) white firm-fleshed fish filets, like tilapia, red snapper, mahi-mahi

Sweet/glutinous rice flour

  1. Pour enough hot water on dried chilis to cover and soak until they are soft. Drain and place them in a food processor, then purée into a fine paste. Remove and set aside. 
  2. In the food processor, purée the onion, garlic, and belacan into a fine paste. Remove and mix with the chili paste.
  3. In a pan on medium-high heat, heat the oil. Fry the chili-onion paste until aromatic, about 6 minutes. Then add 12 tablespoons of tamarind juice, and the salt and sugar, or to taste. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook, uncovered, until very thick but not too dry, about 12 minutes. Remove and set aside.
  4. Cut the fish fillets into bite-size pieces. Pour enough flour into a shallow dish/plate to cover the base, and dredge the pieces of fish. Dust off any excess flour.
  5. Add some oil to the pan on medium-high heat, and fry the fish until both sides are golden brown. Drain well and place on paper towels. Remove and serve with the chili-tamarind paste on the side or smeared on top.

Note: You can fry the fish Nyonya-style by smearing the chili paste into a slit in a thick fillet, or stuffed into slits made in whole fish, and frying until completely cooked. Continuously spoon hot oil over the fish to baste it during frying.

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