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

¾ teaspoon/9 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.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.

Asam Udang

In this recipe, we see the Peranakan’s penchant for using a strong flavor element with a mild ingredient – tamarind. The use of this acidic and slightly sweet fruit perhaps harkens back to its introduction by the Tamils who controlled the Straits of Melaka in the 11th century. This application is not only found in this shrimp dish but also in another made with pork belly. 

The basic Nyonya version of this dish is very simple, comprising of only shrimp and tamarind paste as the main ingredients. However, this version is a “supped up” recipe that I learned from Tri Suherni, who worked as my parents’ cook for many years. Here, she brings her Javanese background with the addition of garlic, shallots, chilies, and whole peppercorns into the whole flavor profile. 

The shells are kept on the seafood for two purposes. First is to keep the shrimp moist during the cooking, and second, to act as a canvas for the tamarind sauce to hold on to. The deveining process allows the tamarind to permeate the flesh during marination. 

The best way to really enjoy this dish is the following. Holding the shrimp by its tail, bite the head off, and savor the sauce while you bite down to release the slightly bitter head juices. After removing the shell from the mouth, bite off a chunk, savor the sauce as you manipulate the shell off the flesh – the deveining facilitates this easy removal. Scoop a spoonful of rice into the mouth and chew the mixture together. After completely working on a shrimp, don’t forget to lick the remaining sauce on the fingers. There is no finer way to enjoy it, which, to me, is totally delightful for this gourmand. 

Serves 4

Marination time: 1 to 2 hours

Preparation and cooking time: 15 minutes

500 grams (1 lb) medium-large to large shrimp, unpeeled and deveined

2 tablespoon unseeded tamarind pulp, mixed well with ½ cup room-temperature water and strained

5 whole white peppercorns 

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped roughly

5 small/50 grams shallots, peeled and chopped roughly

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 red chili peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into half lengthwise and into 1-inch pieces

Salt

Sugar

If shrimps are not deveined, follow these steps:

Holding the shrimp in one hand, hold a small serrated knife on other hand, and start at the top of the first shell after the head. Cut into the shell and into the flesh all the way until before the last segment before the tail, deep enough to expose the vein – do not go deeper than the vein. Remove the vein and dip it with the fingers in a bowl of water to release it.

Snip off the end of the shrimp nose and the antennae with a pair of scissors or a knife. Add the shrimp to a large bowl, and drain the shrimp very well of water. Add the tamarind paste, and mix well. Marinate for 1 to 2 hours in the refrigerator.  

When the marinated shrimps are ready:

In a food processor, add the peppercorns and crush into fine bits but not into a fine powder. Add the garlic and shallots, and process into a fine paste. Remove and reserve.

In a pan on medium-high heat, add the oil. Add the processed mixture and fry for 2 minutes until aromatic. Add the marinated shrimp and tamarind mixture, and add ½ teaspoon sugar and ½ teaspoon salt, or to taste. Cook each side of shrimp for 2 minutes only. Add the chilies and stir for 2 minutes until the sauce is completely dry. Serve immediately.

My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.

Gerang Asam Ikan

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 chili boh or Kashmiri dried peppers, or chile puya, 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, mixed well with 3 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 

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. Remove and garnish with a few fresh daun kesum leaves on top of the fish. Serve immediately.
My ebook on the Baba Nyonya Peranakan culture is now available for ALL COUNTRIES at USD $9.99. Please visit the main page or CLICK HERE.