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Asam Pedas Prawns

You must think me bizarre when I tell you that doing my grocery shopping at the French retail chain Monoprix, the other day, I was transported to a bustling colourful market on the eastern coastal town of Kelantan in Malaysia. Monoprix is all bright lights, neatly arranged merchandise, self-checkout counters. It smells of disinfectant. (Except at the cheese section). The alimentation or grocery section of this particular store I go to is in the basement.

How can this remind me - you may ask - of the noisy vibrant multi-levelled market in Kelantan. Goods are laid out on large wooden platforms or on woven mats on the ground, and the matriarchal Kelantanese women vendors dominate the scene. Sitting cross-legged in their colourful sarongs - most of them with head scarfs - they speak a dialect that only locals understand. Spices, stink beans, exotic fruits, fresh seafood, textile, baked goods, the array of produce and merchandise can easily rival that of Monoprix, known and beloved as a one-stop store for urban Parisians.

You’re thinking that these travel restrictions must be really getting to me. Well, of course it is. I could see, hear and smell the market. My salivary centre was on overload with all these signals, and I had to rush home and cook this dish.

But seriously, what triggered this hypnagogic hallucination? It was the tamarind fruit. At Monoprix! Usually they only have ginger, green lime and sweet potatoes at the exotique section. On this day, cinnamon brown-coloured tamarind pods displayed in a basket took me back to the time I first saw enormous bundles of fresh tamarind pods at the Siti Khadijah market in Kelantan. My brother was an army officer and had been posted there. We were visiting, and the market was, and still is, an experience not to be missed.

Mature tamarind pods have juicy acidulous brown or reddish brown pulp. The skin becomes increasingly brittle, becoming easy to crack open. The fruit - resembling almost a date - is sticky, slightly sweet but very tangy. Dehydrated, they can be coated with sugar and eaten like a candy. Sold in little packs, they were something I often bought at the school tuck shop. Sometimes they have chilli added to them.

Processed tamarind are sold in hard blocks. Mixed with water and seeds removed, the tamarind syrup can be made into a refreshing drink and is used extensively in Peranakan cuisine. It is one of the things I always have in my fridge. I find the pressed blocks easily at Asian grocers but the syrup version can be found in health stores and also at some supermarkets.

Asam Pedas is a type of tangy spicy curry, and this one was my favourite growing up. The original recipe has fermented shrimp paste in it, which adds more depth to the dish. Although I love it, I hardly cook with it. I'm afraid my neighbours may summon the police as I once heard happened. The chef in question conceded that yes, the odour emanating into the courtyard from his kitchen window was a tad stinky, but it was an exaggeration to suspect him of hiding a dead body. I didn't hear the story first hand, so it could very well have been made up.

The asam pedas is a typical Nyonya dish that is cooked regularly at home. Adjust the heat according to your spice tolerance. About a tablespoon for a moderately spicy version and more if you’re looking to sweat a little.

The cucumber can be replaced with ladies fingers (okra) or pineapple.

Asam Pedas Prawns with Cucumber


serves 6

Prep Time 20 mins/Cook Time 20 mins/Total Time 40mins

Ingredients to be blended:

  • 1 small onion, peeled

  • 2 stalks lemongrass (white part only)

  • 3 to 5 shallots, peeled

  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled

  • 3 cm length fresh turmeric, peeled

  • 2 tbsps dried shrimp, rinsed (optional)

  • 2 tsp chilli paste

Other Ingredients:

  • 30 g tamarind pulp, soaked in 1/2 cup (app 125 ml) warm water, then strained

  • 2 tbsp cooking oil

  • 500 g medium sized prawns, head removed and shelled

  • 1 cucumber, peeled, cored and cut into bite sized diagonal pieces

  • 1 tsp sugar

  • salt or soya sauce to taste


  1. Prepare the ingredients for the blended mix by cutting into smaller pieces. Blend with 1/4 cup (app 60 ml) water.

  2. Soak the tamarind paste in 1/2 cup (app 125ml) warm water. Put aside.

  3. Heat oil. Fry the blended ingredients over a medium high heat till fragrant, about 10 minutes.

  4. Add prawns, stir through. Add the strained juice of the tamarind pulp, sugar and salt. Allow to come to boil, then simmer till prawns are cooked.

  5. Take off the heat, and add the cucumber. Serve immediately.


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