Assam Fish, The Way My Mother Does It

As a child, I loved acid in my food. I would sip on black vinegar while waiting for Xiao Long Baos to arrive. I added an extra squeeze of lime juice to everything. So it’s not a surprise that one of my favourite dishes is assam fish, assam referring to the sharp tangy pulp of tamarind pods. I loved this dish so much that my mother cooked this dish really often. Every time we went to the wet market together, the fishmonger would ask what fish dish she’s cooking that night, she’d answer assam fish because it’s my favourite. Soon enough, the fishmonger started calling me assam fish whenever I walked by with my mom. My mom’s version of assam fish was fish with a robust gravy clinging to it, and coriander scattered over the top. It wasn’t until I started working at Candlenut that I was introduced to the Nyonya version that is fragranced with laksa leaves, ginger flower and fresh pineapple. Call it nostalgia or conditioning, but I still prefer the coriander in the dish, but feel free to infuse the gravy with laksa leaves and serve the dish with ginger flower and pineapple if you are so inclined!

Assam Fish

Serves 3-4

Rempah:

125g shallots/ red onion, peeled and roughly chopped

35g garlic, peeled

20g ginger, peeled and roughly chopped

4 fresh chillies, two deseeded, roughly chopped

6 tablespoons oil

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

2 stalks lemongrass, cut in half, bruised

4 kaffir lime leaves, crushed between fingers

2 tablespoons seedless tamarind paste (assam)

Salt and sugar to taste

200g brinjal, cut into bite-sized chunks

165g lady’s fingers, halved lengthwise

1 tomato, cut into wedges

400g fish fillets

Handful of coriander leaves

Blend the rempah ingredients to a fine paste. Heat oil in a large pot or wok. Add the rempah, turmeric, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and fry until fragrant, about 5 minutes on low heat. Add 750g water and tamarind paste. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and sugar to taste (I use about 2 teaspoons salt and 2 tablespoons sugar) – you want the gravy to have the sharp tang of tamarind, balanced out with sweetness. Add the vegetables and allow to cook until the brinjal is almost tender. Taste and do a final season of the gravy, thinning out with water if necessary – the gravy should be neither thick nor thin (should be soupy but still have some body to it). Give a final stir and add the fish. Allow it to cook for a few minutes or until the fish is just cooked through. Snip the coriander leaves with scissors over the dish before transferring to a serving dish.

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Author:

Pamelia Chia is a Singaporean chef and the author of the bestselling cookbook ‘Wet Market to Table’. After graduating with an Honor’s degree in Food Science and Technology from the National University of Singapore in 2014, she decided to trade a food scientist’s lab coat in for chef whites. She has since been working in restaurants in Singapore and Melbourne, including Candlenut and Carlton Wine Room. Her deepest interest being the preservation and celebration of Singaporean food heritage and culture, she started Singapore Noodles in 2020 as a platform to share about Singaporean food to a global audience. Find her on Instagram @pameliachia.

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