Asam Pedas (Spicy Tamarind Fish) is a spicy and tangy Malaysian fish dish that is sure to whet your appetite. Feast on it with lots of steamed rice.
Ask any Malaysian about spicy and tangy curries, two would vie for the top spot. Some would say Asam Pedas while others would swear by Gulai Tumis. A third group thinks that they are both one and the same. To make it even more complicated both of these are technically not curries but forms of spicy soups and gravies.
Asam Pedas vs Gulai Tumis
Asam Pedas and Gulai Tumis may share similar characteristics but there are some distinct differences. Some sources say that Asam Pedas is spicy, tangy, and more watery while Gulai Tumis is sweeter, thicker, and uses coconut milk. Yet others claim that the different name is purely regional. There may be truth in all of it but my understanding is as follows…
Asam Pedas when translated literally means tamarind spicy. The “tamarind” refers to the tamarind juice used in the gravy. The “spicy” refers to the spice paste which is usually NOT fried in oil. Asam Laksa is a kind of Asam Pedas. Hence, its spice paste is never fried in oil.
Gulai Tumis literally means fried spicy gravy. The word “gulai” means spicy gravy and “tumis” means fried. So, in this case, the spice paste is fried and because of that the gravy has a rich oily color. Sorry, but coconut milk is not used in Gulai Tumis.
Is there a hard and fast rule pertaining to these classifications? Probably not. Call it whatever you will but my version of Asam Pedas will always be a boiled, spicy, and tangy gravy. No “tumis” (frying) and definitely no coconut milk. Perhaps I will share my Mom’s signature Gulai Tumis at a later time. 😉
Herbs and Spices for Asam Pedas
Asam Pedas is very easy to prepare but gathering the ingredients may be a little challenging if you live outside of Southeast Asia. Today, specialty ingredients like lemongrass, asam jawa (tamarind paste), and belacan are available at many Asian grocery stores. Daun kesum (polygonum) a.k.a. Vietnamese mint will probably be the hardest to find.
Thankfully, I found the plant last summer at the farmer’s market in downtown Minneapolis. I planted it in a pot and left it outdoors in my Vegetable Garden. When the weather turned cold in the fall, I brought it indoors. At the end of spring, I took it back outdoors and it grew and grew until I had to bring it back indoors just two weeks ago. I pruned and re-potted it before moving it to my sun room where it will stay until next spring. I used some of the pruned leaves for this dish.
Fish for Asam Pedas
In Malaysia, usually pomfret, tenggiri (trunk mackerel) or kembung (chubb mackerel) are used in this dish. I can’t get either here and so I decided to use cod instead. I am quite happy with the results. Pompano will also work but I did not want to drive downtown to Minneapolis to get the fish this time. Of course, the good ol’ salmon would be delicious as well.
You will also notice in the video that I added the sugar only I after I had done a taste test. That was because the pineapple was already quite sweet and so I wanted to be sure that it will not be overly sweet by adding the sugar at the same time I added the salt. Please add both salt and sugar according to your own preference.
As for the belacan (shrimp paste), it can be toasted or not. If you have good quality premium belacan, you can use it without toasting. I usually toast a large batch of belacan in the summer and store it in jars for use in the winter.
Tools Used in Making This Asam Pedas (Spicy Tamarind Fish)
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Asam Pedas (Spicy Tamarind Fish)
- 30 g asam jawa (tamarind paste)**, rinsed
- 2 stalks lemongrass (crushed)
- 4 stalks daun kesum / polygonum / Vietnamese mint (stems removed)
- Salt to taste
- 1 cup pineapple (200g)
- Sugar to taste
- ½ lb okra (trimmed) (225g)
- 1 lb cod or fish of choice (450g)
- 5 red chilies
- 1 inch fresh turmeric
- 10 shallots
- 2 stalks lemongrass (sliced bottom third into rings)
- ¾ inch cube belacan (shrimp paste)
- Blend all spice paste ingredients with 2 tablespoons water until smooth.
- Place asam jawa in a small metal strainer over a bowl. Pour 1 cup (240ml) hot water over asam jawa. Stir and press down asam jawa with a spoon to dissolve.
- Pour spice paste into a medium clay pot or non reactive pot. Pour strained tamarind juice into the pot. Stir to combine. Add crushed lemongrass, daun kesum, salt to taste, and pineapple. Again stir to combine. Place lid on the pot and allow sauce to come to a boil. Reduce heat and continue to simmer for 10 minutes.
- Remove the lid. Do a taste test. Add a little sugar to taste.
- Add okra and fish. Place the lid back onto the pot. Continue to cook for another 3 to 5 minutes or until okra is tender.
- Turn off stove and serve warm with steamed rice.
The spicy and tangy flavor of Asam Pedas will surely whet your appetite and get your taste buds going. There is nothing better than serving it with lots of steamed rice and little else, if any. The dish in itself is complete with protein, fruits, and vegetables. Nothing else is needed besides the rice. Now that I have come to the end of my post, it is time for me to dig in…YUM! 😉