Simply addictive : Ikan masak assam and ulam

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The Malays have a healthy habit: they offer a plate of raw vegetables, or ulam, to accompany their fiery sambal sauces at meals.

I forgot about this habit, which the Peranakans also took up, until I ate at my sister-in-law's house the other night.

Her sister Catherine, a true nonya cook, served ikan masak assam, known as tamarind fish.

 

A simple but addictive dish, for it is tangy with tamarind, aromatic with turmeric and galangal, yet rich with the shrimp paste that also goes into the spice paste.

You just poach the fish in this spiced tamarind gravy, but the nonyas go one step further.

They may shred the fish found in the pot, add a dollop of sambal belacan, or chilli with shrimp paste, and eat this dip with raw vegetables or ulam on the side.

The ulam is interesting: Generally, it comprises raw cabbage, cucumber, green chilli and, importantly, three varieties of beans - long beans, winged beans and petai beans, also known as the stinky bean.

The beans make a lot of sense for they bring lots of fibre, vitamins and protein to the plate even if your meal is just rice and sambal.

The habit of offering ulam is also ideal for those following a paleolithic diet, where carbs are strictly prohibited and meals are restricted to protein and vegetables for health and weight control.

And to think this is an old-school dish that came about during a time when nutrition was not so well researched. Yet the older generations knew what was good for them.

All the vegetables bring their own nutritional value to the dish, but the beans are especially high in protein and fibre and low in fat.

They also have a low glycaemic index score, that is, they do not make your blood sugar levels shoot up.

The petai bean, in particular, is supposed to help with depression, premenstrual tension and, being high in potassium, also with high blood pressure.

As for the assam gravy, it is a classic recipe.

I have written about it before, but not as a dip teamed with ulam.

Masak assam is easy to turn out and highly versatile. It is also the gravy for the famed nonya dish, tamarind prawns with pineapple, as well as Penang laksa.

You merely process all the ingredients required and then boil it up with tamarind water.

The fish can be whichever variety you prefer, but I like mackerel as it is an oily fish with only a central bone, making it easier to shred.

You can also fry an egg to pop on top of the shredded fish and ladle lots of that aromatic gravy over it. This is an easy way to stretch the dish - one of the many good ideas learnt at my grandmother's knee.

RECIPE

Ikan masak assam and ulam (Tamarind fish dip)

(Serves eight to 10)

INGREDIENTS

600g batang steaks (or any meaty fish)

1 tsp salt

Ulam tray:

2 green chillies, optional

1 cucumber, cut into chunky lengths

A large wedge of white cabbage, cut into quarters, hard stem removed and leaves separated

4 or 5 long beans, snapped into finger lengths, threads removed

4 or 5 four-cornered beans (kachang botol), snapped into halves, threads removed

A handful of petai beans

Spiced tamarind gravy:

2 tbs tamarind paste

4 cups of water

1 thumb-length turmeric root, peeled

2 thumb-lengths galangal root, peeled

1 red chilli, optional

1 tbs belacan or shrimp paste

1 stalk lemongrass, use white part only

METHOD

Wash and drain the vegetables and prepare them accordingly. Snap the ends of the winged bean and pull out the thread that comes with it. Do the same with the long beans. Chop up the rest of the greens into the appropriate lengths.

Place the vegetables on a plate and leave them in the fridge to chill and crisp up while you continue with the rest of the recipe.

Process the turmeric, galangal, belacan and red chilli in a food processor till fine, forming a spice paste.

Make the tamarind water by mixing tamarind paste with water and straining it to remove the pulp and seeds.

Place the tamarind water, spice paste and lemongrass in a pot and bring to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes or so until the paste is thoroughly dissolved.

Rub the salt into the fish and add to the pot. When the gravy comes to the boil again, turn off the heat and season to taste with more salt, if desired.

You can serve the gravy as a soup, garnished with torn shreds of a fresh turmeric leaf; or as a dip with ulam.

To serve as a dip, pull out the bones from the fish. Flake the fish and pour enough gravy over it until it reaches a dipping consistency.

 
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