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By October 05, 2015 , ,

Who says starting a blog is easy?! It’s certainly not too hard. But, maintaining a blog and keeping a steady stream of posts is the challenging bit. I’ve had the dreaded writer’s block all week and just couldn’t lift my spirits to write, despite having heaps of things (food-related or not) to share. On the kitchen front, I was feeling uninspired that resulted in homemade meals that were average at best.

However, following a lovely Saturday out in the sun at Cherry Hill Orchards and the Teselaar Tulip Festival, I was back to my old-self again. The beautiful spring colours inspired me to create a vibrant, flavoursome dish, and my choice was non-other than my all-time favourite Malaysian-style sour and spicy fish stew (Ikan Assam Pedas).

This dish is highly addictive for those who love all things sour and spicy. However, I must also warn you that this is a very pungent dish. If you have an aversion towards the smell of fish sauce or cooked shrimp paste (belachan), you may not enjoy it. But, if you’re a lover of Tom Yum or Thai-style dishes, this tamarind and lemongrass infused dish will be right up your alley.

Now, before we dive into the recipe, let’s get some glossaries out of the way. Ikan= fish; Assam = tamarind (which forms the sour part of this dish); Pedas = Spicy. The key that binds this dish together is the spice paste, which consists of garlic, ginger, dried chillies, shallot, lemon grass and cooked shrimp paste (belachan). The spices are blended using a mortar and pestle (or a food processor, because...technology) until combined.

The next key ingredient of this dish is tamarind. While the tamarind fruit looks like endamame beans IRL, the pulp is usually processed as a solidified 300g or 500g rectangular block, commonly found at your local Asian grocer. It’s not the most visually pleasing ingredient out there, but it tastes oh-so-good when combined with fiery hot chillies and spices. Anyway, cut up about a tablespoon worth of tamarind, soak the tamarind pulp in 1/3 cup of boiling hot water for 15 minutes. When the water is cool enough to touch, squeeze the tamarind pulp to extract the flavour into the water. You will be left with the tamarind seeds, which will be discarded.

This dish also calls for a few other things that I couldn’t get my hands on, such as Vietnamese mint (how ironic that I couldn’t find it in Springvale) and ginger flower. Seriously, some Asian herbs are to Australia what water and petroleum is to Mad Max. I substituted these with kaffir lime leaves instead, which still lends that tropical fragrance unique to South East Asian cuisine. A word of caution: don’t overdo the kaffir lime leaves, just one or two leaves is more than enough. I overdid them once and it turned the whole dish bitter.

Now that we’ve prepared our spices, let’s get on to the fish, which is the main feature of this dish. I am partial towards the Spanish Mackerel, but the red snapper and tilapia works well with the dish too – something relatively inexpensive. In fact, my mum would make this dish as a mean to finish up that week-old frozen fish that’s not fresh enough for fish congee. The pungent herbs and spices help to cover up the fishy taste. Of course, if you’re like Steve who pinches his nose in disgust at the first whiff of the slightest fishy smell, just use the absolute freshest fish you can get your hands on.

Okra is usually used in this dish to provide a splash of colour among a sea of red. The vegetable absorbs the liquid from spice paste and tamarind juice, and the mucus helps to thicken the liquid. If you’re not a fan of okra, let me convert you green beans and baby corn works great in this dish too. But really, okra has a range of health benefits! Try some okra!

Now, back to the recipe, it is actually quite quick and easy to prepare, especially if you’re blending the spice paste with a food processor. In the cooking process, if you find the mixture too sour or too spicy for your taste, just add some sugar to taste. If it’s getting too “gluggy”, add some water. If it’s not sour enough, add more tamarind juice or lime juice. That’s why I love Asian cooking: Ingredient measurements are subjective, depending on your taste buds, which means less room for error, more room for creativity!

Serve this dish with a bowl of fragrant jasmine rice, and you have yourself a lovely dinner, because you deserve it.

Ikan Assam Pedas

1 white fish fillet (I used Spanish Mackerel), cut into 3 inch pieces
10 small okras
1 tomato (cut into wedges)
1 tsp turmeric power, or curry powder (optional)
4 kaffir lime leaves 
5 tbsps of cooking oil
1 tbsp of sugar
Salt to taste

Spice Paste
1 clove garlic
2 thin slices of ginger (julienned)
1 stalk of lemon grass (white part only)
4 shallots
8-10 dried chillies (depends how spicy you like)
1/2 tbsp of belacan (prawn paste)

Tamarind Juice
1 1/4 cup of water
1 tbsp Tamarind pulp


Pound the spice paste with mortar and pestle or grind them in a food processor. Set aside.

Soak the tamarind pulp in warm water for 15 minutes. Squeeze the tamarind pulp constantly to extract the flavor into the water. Drain the pulp and save the tamarind juice.

Heat oil and fry the spice paste for 2 minutes or until fragrant.

Add the tamarind juice, curry powder or turmeric powder and bring to boil.

Add the tomato wedges and okras and bring to boil.

Add the fish, salt and sugar.

Add the kaffir lime leaves.

Simmer on low heat for 5 minutes or until the fish is cooked.

Servve hot with a bowl of fragrant white jasmine rice. 

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