Auntie Ruby's Assam Laksa - 01 Preparing the Kembong Fish

Friday, December 16, 2011

How do you even begin to describe the experience of eating Assam Laksa?

Imagine a fish kembung broth meticulously prepared. Then you add spices like chili, the complex and fruity ginger flower (torch bud), lots of sour tamarind (assam), assam keping (dried tamarind skins), blue ginger (lengkuas, galangal), shallots, laksa leaves and "funky" belachan (dried shrimp paste,and 'funky' was the word an Australian chef used to describe this paste).

As if that is not flavorful enough, you garnish the sweet and indescribable prawn paste (hae kou), mint leaves, and shredded large red onions, grated pineapple and more chillies and ginger flower.

Fishy, sour, sweet, fruity, spicy, salty, bitter, minty and umami. This rich, flavorful and complex broth has all the works.

Not surprisingly, this dish came out no 7 on the CNN list of the 50 world's best foods. It belongs to the category of foods which some will crave for. Think Assam Laksa, and one will put everything aside and drive a long distance just to have it.  

The best version of the streets is found in Penang. This little Hokkien island at the northwest corner tip of West Malaysia needs no introduction as she has a worldwide reputation for many superb street hawker dishes such as her widely loved Char Kuay Teow, Hokkien Prawn Mee, Lobak etc.

And of course, this.

I like Assam Laksa but crazy will not be the word I will use. But many people I know are. My Mum made it very often and it is one of the most requested dishes. Hers can send droves of her fans to my home in a jiffy. I grew up eating hers even before I eat off the ones in Penang and naturally, hers is the version I will compare others with.

I had some good ones somewhere here in the Katong area. This was more than 10 years ago now. I am sure there are some here on this island which can stand up to the Pearl of Orient's.    

This is basically noodles in a fish broth. I will first outline how the fish is prepared. In a second and final installment, I will detail out how the rest of this is prepared.

The larger Selar is on the left while the rest are Kembung
Ikan Kembong is a part of the mackerel family. It is cheap and aplenty in Southeast Asia. It should not be confused with ikan selar which is larger and broader. But knowing this means that you can replace kembung with another type of mackerel fish if you have no choice. 

This fish is at the heart of this dish. It provides the fishy sweetness of the broth, balancing the sourness of the tamarind paste. If you use canned sardine as some stalls outside of Penang have done, it will not turn out the same. But if Kembong is cheap - especially in Malaysia - why won't more stalls use it? And if they use it, why don't many stalls make it well?

The simple reason is the work involves in preparing it well for this laksa. I suppose there is less incentive to take these extra steps if customers are undiscerning or less demanding. I have had versions of Assam Laksa with a broth which is transparently diluted, sardined and laced with sugar sweetness.

"Better than nothing," the reply often comes with a shrug. Even some restaurants here claiming to offer Penang food will compromise on this.

If you have tasted the real thing, you will know when it is simply not good enough.

Ok, the work at a good Assam Laksa broth starts with this. Make sure your kembung fish is fresh.

You want to extract all the fishy goodness and sweetness of the kembung: meat, bones, skin, heads...everything. If Hokkien Prawn Mee is about maximum extraction of flavors from the prawns, Assam Laksa is focused on the fish.

Boil the fish for about 5 minutes till it is just right. The meat is cooked but not falling off the bone. In fact, after a brief boil, a fresh kembung is delicious as is.

Remove them from the pot and the next stage is to debone the meat.

You have to pull the backbone off carefully, hoping that it will take most of the bones with it. Then patiently, remove all remaining the soft bones from the meat. You use a bowl of water to wash the bones off your fingers. 

You should know by now that the best bone detector and remover are your fingers, bar none.That is one reason why curry fish or chilli fish should be eaten with fingers.

Now, you don't throw the remaining fish carcasses away. Separate the heads and bones. Smash the heads using the evergreen lesong (heavy mortar) to extract all the juices out. Then put back into the pot along with the bones and boil further. Then you pass strain the broth.

I should add that it will be easier if you have a stick blender as you can blend the fish heads in the pot itself.

These steps are important for a good intense bowl of Assam Laksa. The fish meat and crush bits will also add to the texture and colour of the cloudy thick broth. It looks like hard work but it is all done in a jiffy if you have some helping hands.

For the rest of this post, I will show you an "all-kembung" gallery illustrating some of the steps.

Go here for the full recipe and here for description of some of the ingredients.

Boiled Ikan Kembung (Mackerel)
Peel the backbone off the meat slowly - beautiful.
Removing the soft bones with the best fishbone detector & remover: our fingers!
The Kembung Apocalyse
Smashing the heads
Smashed fish head going into the pot
Straining the stock
The leftovers to be discarded
Deboned meat. Gorgeous. Take a bite.

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  1. Hmm. My family uses Sai Toh when we are doing it super special. Kambong is only used if we are absolutely pressed for time.

    1. Hi Karen, do you also crush the fish head into the broth as in Terry’s recipe?

  2. Just made this and it's fantastic. I used a stick blender to blend the head and parts of the bones and the stock is amazingly sweet. Thank you for sharing.
    I have also made the Prawn noodles following exactly your recipe and it also turned out fantastic.

  3. Glad that there are some like you who will work on these more difficult than average recipes. If u have any photos will appreciate receiving them so that I can see how the recipe turned out for you. Happy cooking!

  4. reminds of the famous penang assam laksa at kek lok si temple the only place on the planet lol