How to Make Assam Pedas: A Fish Dish at Its Best
Fish never tasted so good
Want to throw your tastebuds in a frenzy? Tired of the lame old Chinese takeout or the same Indian food you got last Friday? If there's anything I've learnt from living in the States for the last three years, it's that there is an abundance of Asian fare and you can even find it late at night if you look in all the right places, BUT: only two out of thirty times, is the food actually good. It already amazes me how much we are willing to spend on dinner/takeout/a mediocre meal. The only way you can save a buck or two is if you frequent the drive-thru, and that is at another expense of yours: your health. So what do you do? Depending on when payday is, you'll choose the burrito over the Italian bistro, and to make yourself feel better you might just throw in the taco salad and think, hey, I could've gone with the nachos and cheese but I didn't, I made the healthier choice. The better choice. Yeah, right. We've all been there. Heck, I've been there a few times. AND I like to cook. So what gives? I guess the method to this madness is, we get home from work/school/a lousy day, want to take a hot shower and get into some comfy clothes and plop our little hineys on the couch, with the remote within reach. And I totally get that. But what's really important to me besides getting my day's rest is, being able to eat something totally satisfying, that didn't break my bank and didn't have me slaving over the stove all evening. This is where Assam Pedas comes in. This is another popular dish from my home country, Singapore (check out my previous hub on Singapore). I absolutely adore this dish! The aromas in your kitchen as you sauté the ingredients are one hundred percent hypnotizing...your nostrils will thank you. I'm talking shallots, garlic, ginger root, lemongrass, chilies...all these glorious ingredients, cooking up together, smelling fantastic, each playing a significant role, but also complementing each other. Don't be surprised if your neighbors start knocking on your door, asking you if they can have some of "whatever it is you're cooking cos that smells awesome what is that??". Haha, that happened to me once, but it was with a door-to-door saleman. Still funny, tho.
While everyone has their own method of making this dish, I have come up with my own simple way of preparing, cooking and serving this meal. There is still some preparation involved, but once it is all done, it will be well worth the effort.
Three nice-sized shallots
Five cloves of garlic
A thumb-sized piece of galangal if you can get it, or ginger root (skin removed/peeled)
A three inch piece of lemongrass (outer layer removed)
Belachan (shrimp paste)
Several fresh red and green chilies (depending on how spicy you like it)
Some dried chilies
Canola or Vegetable oil
Tamarind juice (which can be obtained from a packet of tamarind, as shown in the picture here)
A cup of warm water
Fish curry powder
Tilapia (3 or 4 fillets)
Tomatoes (2 small ones, quartered)
Blend Part A ingredients. Make sure that you chop up the galangal/ginger, shallots and lemongrass into smaller pieces to help speed up the blitzing process. The galangal/ginger and lemongrass can be pretty tough, so you'll definitely want to chop these up into smaller pieces before putting them into the blender. When they've been blended to a nice paste, set them aside in a bowl.
Part B ingredients can be intimidating at first, but if you come prepared, you'll be fine. Get some disposable gloves on, and put a handful of dried chilies in the hot water. Let them soak for about 15-20 minutes til they get soft. Once they've softened, get another bowl and pick up the chilies in your hand and gently squeeze the seeds out into the water they were soaking in and transfer the squeezed chilies into the new bowl. Repeat this process until all the chilies have been squeezed. Discard the soaking water and seeds. Blend the newly squeezed chilies with a drizzle of the canola/vegetable oil and a good pinch of salt. Blend til you've got a paste. I like my chili paste a little chunky, but you may blend yours til you reach a fine paste. This part is per your liking. Once you've got it to the fineness/chunkiness that you like, you can transfer the paste to a freezer safe ziploc bag, and this stuff freezes incredibly well. I personally use this chili paste for a number of dishes, which I will share in due time. You will want to reserve a couple tablespoons of this chili paste for the fish dish we're about to make. NOTE: This stuff is lethal. No joke! It's hot...and that's an understatement. If you're new to the whole spicy thing, you may want to add just a half of a teaspoon, and that may be enough for you. Remember now, I warned you, this stuff is extremely hot when consumed in a large dose. Even for an avid chili fan, I only add a tablespoon or two at the most, because the chili paste comprises of reconstituted dried chilies, and that basically means you "reactivated" the chilies in warm water, thus bringing them to life, so to speak. So be careful! A little goes a long way. This is my disclaimer! Now on to less dangerous stuff.
Part C ingredients require some squeezing too, but tamarind is not anywhere near lethal, in fact, it is mild and sour. Spiciness is not a factor with this ingredient. Messiness is, tho. You won't be needing any gloves for this activity, but you will need to wash your hands well after messing around with the tamarind. Soak the tamarind in a cup of warm water for a few minutes. Squeeze the tamarind in the water and watch the water turn a caramel color. Make sure to pick out any seeds that may have fallen into the water. We don't want the seeds. When you've squeezed all you can, discard the pulp. Part C is good to go.
Part D ingredients don't need to be messed around with. They just need to be on the kitchen counter, ready to be used. I suggest using a tablespoon of each powder.
Part E ingredients just need to be on the counter ready to go, too. You just need to lightly season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Quarter the tomatoes; those will go in last, when the dish is off the heat.
Optional ingredients: These are the veggie options. I don't like those two vegetables, which is crazy I know, but I rather like this dish quite plain; just gravy and fish, in all of its gorgeousness and simplicity all the while oozing this hearty and robust flavor.
We're ready to cook! The prep work was a lot, I know, but the actual cooking is a piece of cake. All you need to do is heat up a medium saucepan with a good drizzle of canola/vegetable oil. When it gets hot, add in Part A (blended paste) and B (chili paste) ingredients and a good pinch of salt. Sauté the paste for a number of minutes; you should start to see oil ooze out from the sides of the paste. These are the natural oils from the ground ingredients. If your paste is starting to get dry, you need to add more oil. This is perfectly fine and normal, just do it because you really don't want your paste to burn and dry out. Once you start seeing the oils ooze out from the paste, you can move on to the next step.
Add in the cup of tamarind water. The pan should sizzle, and this is when you scrape up the bits on the bottom and sides of the pan. Yum. Add in your Part D ingredients (turmeric, chili and fish curry powder) to the pan. Stir. At this point you can add the optional ingredients (veggies) to the pan. Stir and bring to the boil.
Add Part E ingredients minus the tomatoes. So fish first, make sure you get them in the liquid; try to have your fish submerged in there so it can cook, not hovering on the surface. Lastly add some salt and a tablespoon of sugar. Simmer for 5-8 minutes.
When the fish is cooked, take the pan off the heat and add the tomatoes. Stir carefully, try not to break the fish. Taste and make any adjustments ie. more sugar/salt...and be prepared for some knee-buckling goodness. Look at the deliciousness you created and pat yourself on the back! After all your hard work, wasn't it worth it? Eat assam pedas with some steamed Jasmine rice on a cold autumn day.