Asam Pedas Ikan – Sour Spicy Fish in Gravy
In Malaysia, there is a spicy, sour, and super savoury dish known as “Asam Pedas”. Literally translated as “sour spicy” from Bahasa Melayu; “sour” from the tamarind juice and “spicy” from the blended chillis. Often cooked with fish, this Asam Pedas Ikan goes well with plain white rice. It’s truly mouth-watering – which is my kind of dish as I love all tangy and spicy dishes 😉 Yum!
The fish that I’m using this time is known as “Ikan Tenggiri” locally, or “Narrow-Barred Spanish Mackerel”. Being an incredibly large fish, it is sold fresh in slices at the local wet market or supermarkets. The flesh turns soft, white and sweet once cooked, whilst being firm enough to keep its shape even after being stirred in the gravy.
This recipe is done in two parts – preparing the “rempah” (or “spice paste” in Bahasa Melayu), and cooking the asam pedas gravy. Let’s get to it!
Preparing the Asam Pedas Ikan Ingredients
Firstly, wash and marinate the fish with salt.
Soak the dry chili in hot water to soften it. Blend the chili into a paste.
Next, prepare the rempah that will be used in the gravy. Some of these will be blended into the spice paste while the others will be added while the asam pedas is being cooked.
Chop the large onions, lemongrass stalks, ginger, and turmeric into smaller pieces. These fibrous ingredients are difficult turn into a paste. Next, remove the skin from the shallots and garlic.
Add the onions, lemongrass stalk, ginger, turmeric, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, and blended chili in the clean blender or food processor. Add a cup of water to moisten the ingredients so that it will be easier to process the food into a paste.
Cooking the Asam Pedas Rempah
Add cooking oil to a large saute pan over high heat. When the oil has been heated, pour all the rempah into the saute pan. Be careful while doing this as the oil can splash and scald the skin.
Add a teaspoon of turmeric powder to enhance the colour and taste of the rempah.
With a spatula, continuously stir the rempah until well-combined with the cooking oil. Cover the pan with a lid and allow to cook for 10 to 15 minutes. The colour of the rempah should be slightly darkened and most of the water should have evaporated.
While waiting for the rempah to thicken and darken, prepare 2 bowls of tamarind water – a concentrated and a diluted one. For the concentrated tamarind water, mix 1/4 cup of tamarind pulp with 1/2 cup of water and strain the liquid. Do the same for the diluted one, by using 1/4 cup of tamarind pulp with 1 cup of water.
Open the cover, taking care of the steam released from the pan. Give the rempah a good stir with a spatula.
Add concentrated tamarind water to the rempah, while stirring to both incorporate the water into the rempah and to prevent the bottom of rempah from being burnt. Tamarind water will add a sour profile to the taste of this dish.
Add 3 teaspoons of sugar to the rempah and stir to combine. Sugar is added to balance out the sharpness of the sour tamarind water, blending it with the spicy taste. More moisture will escape the rempah as steam. The rempah should be thick enough to be able to cover the back of a spoon.
Continue to stir for 3 minutes. Cover the pan and allow it to boil for another minute. Then, add diluted tamarind water and a cup of water to dilute the rempah into asam pedas gravy. Cover with the lid and allow the gravy to boil.
Meanwhile, chop the spring onion into 2 inches pieces. Slice the torch ginger flower to about an inch thick. Cut the tomatoes into 6 pieces, removing the stalk. Prepare the okra by cutting off the tips and setting them aside in a clean bowl. For the Vietnamese coriander (daun kesum), remove about a cup of leaves from the stalks. Give them a wash before setting them aside.
When the asam pedas gravy is boiling, open the lid carefully and allow the steam to escape. Give it a good stirbefore adding the ginger flower slices and salt to taste. Stir again until well combined. It’s time to add in the fish!
Cooking Asam Pedas Ikan
Carefully submerge the fish slices into the boiling gravy to cook them evenly. Important step: once they have been added, you want to refrain from stirring because the fish is releasing its raw liquid while cooking. By keeping the fish stagnant, the liquid will eventually cook with its flesh, and will not be dispersed throughout the gravy. Doing so minimizes the distinct fishy smell in this dish.
Add okra and tomatoes at the top of the gravy as these cook faster than the fish. Cover the pan to allow the vegetables to simmer.
After 5 minutes, gently lift the fish from the bottom of the pan with a spatula to check for doness. The fish is cooked when the colour has become white and opaque. If it is still pale, grey and translucent, then it is still raw.
These thin slices of fish cook extremely fast in boiling liquid, so becareful not to overcook them.
Gently stir the vegetable to ensure they are all cooked. Give the gravy a taste. It should have a sourness from the tamarind juice, sweetness, and savoury taste from the sugar and fish. Use this opportunity to adjust the taste if any of the elements are lacking.
Lastly, add all the Vietnamese coriander in the pan and cover with the lid to cook for 1 minute. This step allows the coriander to infuse its fragrance and essence into the gravy.
After a minute, turn off the heat and serve the fish, okra, and tomatoes with a generous helping of the gravy. Serve it with some white rice.
The rice mixed with asam pedas ikan gravy is mildly spicy, tangy and very rich with the blended spices and herbs. The fragrance of a minty, sweet, tangy scent compliments the taste. The vegetables are soft and very tender, with the okra providing a little firmness to each bite. The fish itself is smooth, naturally sweet and fresh; so delicious and rich with the gravy. It’s perfect for a special occasion, or just as an everyday meal!
Given the effort it takes to cook the Asam Pedas Ikan, once cooled, it can be stored for not more than 2 days in the fridge in a clean container. From my experience, this type of asam pedas dish tastes even better once it has been allowed to “rest” overnight.
If freezing for the future, it can last up to a week or two, depending on the freshness of the fish used. Once frozen, allow it to completely thaw out before reheating. Avoid re-freezing or storing thawed out asam pedas however, as this will impact the freshness of the fish.
Asam Pedas Ikan Tenggiri
- Saute pan
- Food Processor
- Sharp Kitchen Knife
- Chopping Board
- Silicone Spatula
Paste (to blend)
- ½ cup chili paste, soaked and blended, reduce if less spicy is preferred
- 2 red onions, medium-sized, chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, skinned
- 1 nubs ginger, skinned
- 3-4 nubs tumeric, kunyit, skinned
- 1 stalk lemongrass, chopped
- 1 tbsp shrimp paste, mild belacan
- 1 cup water, room temperature
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 3 large slices mackerel fish, ikan tenggiri, marinated with salt
- 18 pieces okras
- 1 tomato, large.
- 1 handful Vietnamese Coriander, daun kesum
- 1 stalk ginger flower, bunga kantan, chopped
- ½ cup concentrated tamarind water, assam jawa; strain 1/4 cup of tamarind pulp with 1/2 cup of water
- 3 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt, to taste
- 1 tbsp cooking oil
- ½ cup diluted tamarind water, strain 1/4 cup of tamarind pulp with 1 cup of water
- 1 cup water, room temperature
Making the paste
- In a clean food processor, add the red onions and lemongrass, followed by the rest of the ingredients, ending with water.
- Blend the ingredients until well-incorporated and almost smooth.
- Over medium heat, heat the cooking oil in a large saute pan.
- Add the paste to the pan. Stir until the paste has thickened, and the fragrance of the paste is released.
- Add the tumeric powder. Stir until well-incorporated.
- Cover with a lid and allow to cook for 10-15 minutes.
- Add tamarind water and continue to stir until well-incorporated.
- Add sugar. Continue to cook until the paste is almost dry, stirring to prevent burning at the bottom of the pan.
- Add the diluted tamarind water into the pan. Stir until combined. Cover with lid, and allow to come to a rolling boil.
- Chop the ginger flower to bite-sized pieces. Set aside.
- Cut the tomato into 6 pieces. Set aside.
- Remove the heads of the okra. Set aside.
- Remove the Vietnamese Coriander leaves from the stalks. Set aside.
- Remove the lid from the pan. Add the ginger flower and salt.
- While the gravy is in a rolling boil, carefully add the fish so that it is submerged in the gravy. Do not stir.
- Add okra and tomato carefully to the top of the gravy. Cover with the lid and allow to simmer for 3-4 minutes.
- Remove the lid and gently stir the fish to ensure that they are not stuck to the bottom of the pan.
- Taste the gravy. Adjust taste if needed.
- Add the Vietnamese Coriander. Cover with the lid and allow to cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Dish onto a shallow plate and serve.
- Once completely cooled, it can be stored in the fridge for at most, 2 days.
- Depending on the freshness of the fish, it can last frozen for 1-2 weeks. However, once thawed, it is not advisable to store it again as the freshness of the fish can deteriorate very quickly.