Assam pedas is one of those staple dishes that feature in a Malay family’s regular home menu, and quite typical of Malay cooking in that its main ingredient is CHILLI. Go to any Malay food stall in Singapore, and you will see it sitting there as an option for you to put on your rice. And, if you think this is along the lines of chilli con carne you are mistaken.
When I first ate chilli con carne as a tween in my school food fair (international food fairs are a regular feature of many International schools and always eagerly looked forward to each year!) I was confused; for something called ‘chilli’ I felt no heat at all. And I am not one of those hardcore chilli eating individuals either. Why is chilli con carne called chilli?? I don’t know, maybe it really is supposed to blow your head off and perhaps I simply didn’t eat an authentic rendition.
Assam Pedas on the other hand is made with real chillies, and will blow your head off.
The word ‘sour’ in the Malay language is masam, the tamarind fruit as you would find it on the tree is called buah assam and assam in the Malay language refers to the tamarind fruit pulp used for cooking and can be found at any grocer or supermarket in Singapore. In Singapore it is mostly sold in clear plastic packets and is very soft and jammy and nearly homogenous in texture, although the seeds are still present. I have seen tamarind pulp in London and Delhi packed into very firm bricks, where the seeds and even outer skin of the fruit are left in. It’s so hard, you could probably hurt someone if you lobbed it at them. The latter version of tamarind can be viewed presumably as the more natural version as it’s probably undergone less processing. They’re interchangeable, but the harder one obviously needs a much longer soaking before you can strain the liquidy pulp into your cooking.
The seeds left behind are shiny, woody and brown and the size of small marbles, but squarish. When we were children, my mother would collect assam seeds for us to use in our game of Chongkak, traditionally a girl’s game requiring a heavy, oblong piece of wood with several holes cut out of it in two rows and some kind of counting manipulative to put in the holes. Our manipulatives of choice were assam seeds and tiny, smooth conch shells which we collected from our local beaches (can’t find those shells anymore, we probably caused their extinction). The one beach I do remember was the one my paternal grandfather lived on, we called him Atuk Laut or Grandfather Sea, directly translated, and he lived on the beach in a house built on stilts. My sister and cousins and I would run along the beach chasing and cupping tiny shrimp that were trying to hop back into the retreating waves, or collect the conch shells to bring home for chongkak. Fun times.
The word pedas (pronounced puh-daa-ss) means in English ‘spicy’ and by spicy we mean the heat that we get from chillies. (Interestingly in the Thai language, the word for spicy is pehd.)
Generally speaking, most fish dishes in Malay cooking are sour, and I would guess that it’s because it hides any fishiness present. Anyone who eats fresh sashimi would know, however, that freshest fish doesn’t actually smell fishy, but back in the day, hot and humid southeast asia didn’t have refrigeration so this maybe came about out of being frugal and not wanting to waste fish that may have not been the freshest possible, but still fine to consume. No matter, it’s a great combination anyhow, and I would recommend getting the freshest fish possible for any and all of your cooking anyway.
My mum says snapper or pomfret or spanish mackerel are delicious in assam pedas, and they are, but I’d also like to add to that list, sea bream or sea bass. Really, I’d say most any meaty, chunky fish is good in this, I’ve even done monkfish once and that was good too. I don’t recommend, however, fish like lemon sole as it’s too thin, and fragile, although taste wise it’d probably be lovely, or milk fish or sardines, too many little bones! And do the whole fish if you can, as the flavour is deeper and more robust. You can put it in however you like, in steaks or two halves or whole if it’s a small one, whatever suits your fancy. If you really can’t bear struggling eating around bones (though, at the very least, ikan tengirri or spanish mackerel cut into steaks has only one major obvious bone in there that you can’t miss, and lots of meat) feel free to put in a fillet. In a pinch, even those frozen Basa/Sutchi fillets will satisfy.
You will find in my mother’s recipe here, that we don’t add belacan (for more info on belacan go to my Ingredients page), that pungent dried shrimp paste, that many malay families would. I’m not sure why we don’t. My mother said that our cooking tends to lean towards the Indonesian flavours rather than pure Malay flavours, although assam pedas is strictly speaking Malay; it’s not something you would find in Padang in Indonesia. Having said that, without the belacan, the resulting flavour is somewhat lighter and we quite prefer it.
We usually use a pre-prepared blend of dried chillies, garlic and onion as a base for this, called cili giling but if you don’t want to trouble yourself, you can just use fresh red chillies, a combination of a few birds eye for heat and the bigger ones which are milder, for colour.
In Singapore, assam pedas must include the addition of a local herb known as daun kesom which is the same as what you would find labelled as daun laksa but if you don’t have it you will not ruin assam pedas without it. Just keep calm and carry on.