In Singapore, asam pedas – literally,”sour and spicy” – is the quintessential Malay dish. You’ll find it everywhere, all the time, both at home and at Nasi Padang (Padang cuisine) stalls. People often gauge how good a chef or home cook is by the quality of their asam pedas! This is because it’s tricky to get the balance just right. And, an old man once gave me a piece of invaluable advice: “If you can cook asam pedas well, your husband will never leave you”.
Asam pedas is thought of as a Malay dish, not an Indonesian one. In fact, the city of Malacca in Malaysia is famous for the dish. However, there are many ethnic Malays in Indonesia, too, especially in places like Aceh in Sumatra, and the Riau Islands. These places are much closer physically to Singapore/Malaysia than they are to Jakarta. The Malays in Indonesia cook asam pedas too, except they call it asam padeh, because of their dialects.
Asam padeh, or asam pedas, is a type of Malay fish curry that uses tamarind and dried chilli paste as its base. It is sour and spicy, making it very refreshing. The curry here is somewhat thin, but not as thin as a soup. This texture adds to the rich and full flavor that goes well with rice.
Besides tamarind, dried chillies, and standard ingredients such as shallots, garlic, and galangal, asam pedas dishes can vary slightly. For example, some add a little shrimp paste (terasi in Indonesian and belacan in Malay). It’s also quite common to add daun kesum (Vietnamese coriander) to the dish as well.
Balancing the Taste
Asam pedas can easily go wrong because the balance of the tamarind and the chilli paste is absolutely critical. If you use too few chillies to make the paste, the dish becomes tamarind soup. Too many, and it’s way too spicy.
The trick is to use a lot of chillies, but to de-seed and boil them before adding them in. Some boil the chillies first, then strain them, removing the seeds in the process. I prefer to de-seed them first and then to boil or soak them, afterwards straining and rinsing in cold water.
There’s a quick and easy way to avoid this in Singapore, which is by buying chilli boh, or pre-packaged paste made from dried chillies. This is commonly used in households, especially with stay-home moms cooking for a large family. It works just as well as making your own paste, but I don’t use it because the packet is too big for my consumption.Print
Asam padeh in Indonesian, or asam pedas in Malay, is a common fish curry made using a paste of dried chillies and tamarind, giving it a refreshing yet complex flavour.
- 4 fish steaks
- Juice from one lime
- 1 tsp tamarind paste
- 200 ml water
- 1 large onion or 8 shallots, roughly chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 inch ginger, sliced
- 1 inch galangal, sliced
- 20 dried chillies, deseeded
- Pinch of turmeric powder
- 1 stalk lemongrass, bruised and sliced
- 3 lime leaves, torn
- Another 400 ml water
- 4 tbsp vegetable oil
- Salt to taste
- Pinch of sugar
- Squeeze the lime over the fish and marinate with salt. Set aside.
- Dilute the tamarind paste in 200ml of water. Strain. Set aside.
- Boil the deseeded dried chillies for 5 minutes. Strain.
- Blend into a fine paste: chillies, onion, garlic, ginger and galangal.
- In a wok or pot, heat the oil over a medium flame.
- Add the blended paste. Saute until the paste thickens and the water has mostly evaporated, about 5 minutes.
- Add the lemongrass and turmeric powder. Mix well.
- Add the diluted tamarind paste. Mix well.
- Add the 400ml water, salt and sugar. Let it boil for about 15 minutes.
- Add the lime leaves and the fish. Cook for another 10 minutes. Meanwhile, you can adjust the seasoning.
- Turn off the flame and serve.
- All sorts of fish are used to make asam padeh. Here I’ve used ikan kerisi (threadfin bream), but any fish will do, as long as it isn’t soft and doesn’t fall apart easily. Some commonly used fish for asam pedas include tenggiri (Spanish mackerel) and stingray, and sometimes, red snapper.
Keywords: Healthy, Spicy, galangal, lemongrass