Friday, March 18, 2011

Fish Tales

There was a point in my childhood where I wanted to marry a fisherman. During my summer holidays, we would visit my grandparents who lived by the river. My Dad would take me on a little canoe with an old fisherman called Mang Tino, and we'd row out to the bay in the cool, dark and quiet dawn. The soft ripples of waves, the gentle splash of the oars as they cut through the still water was hypnotic. No conversation. This was Dad's downtime. We stopped a bit by the river bank, where our fisherman scooped up tiny shrimp for bait. We fished for a couple of hours, until the hot morning sun came bearing down on us. That meant it was time to head for shore, where twigs and branches were collected to make a fire to cook our breakfast. Our catch of the day, tiny silver fish, were put into a clay pot, with some onions, garlic, ginger and salt. The sweetness of the fresh fish over hot steamed rice was the best breakfast a little girl could share with her Dad, sitting under a shady tree, by the riverbank. This was serenity.

Here's a recipe for Grilled Fish (adapted from Terry and Christopher Tan's Shiok cookbook), using fillets you can easily find in your neighborhood supermarket. In Singapore, the ideal fish used is Stingray, on the bone, and of course, the fresher the better. It is served with a sweet-salty-spicy sambal and slices of calamansi, our local limes. The sambal recipe yields about a cup. I plan to make more dishes using this condiment, so watch out for it in my future posts.

Grilled Fish with Chili Sambal

500g sole or any white, firm fish fillet
2 tablespoons kecap manis (thick dark soy sauce)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
fresh calamansi or limes, halved

for Chili Sambal:
6 cloves garlic, peeled
4 candlenuts
(closest substitute would be cashew nuts)
2 large onions, chopped
8 dried chilies, soaked for about 30 minutes to soften
2 tablespoons tamarind pulp
3/4 cup water
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon shrimp paste
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Preheat oven to grill (you may also use your barbecue grill).

Pat dry the fish fillets with a paper towel and place in an oven-proof dish. Mix together kecap manis, pepper, salt and sugar. Brush liberally over fish.

Place in the oven and grill for about 3-4 minutes (4-5 minutes for thicker fillets). The fish is cooked through when the meat can be flaked with a fork. Serve with cut limes and chili sambal.

To make the sambal, finely grind garlic, candlenuts, onions and chilies in a food processor to make a moist aromatic paste. Add the tamarind paste into the water and knead until a pulp is produced. Strain into another bowl.

Heat the wok and add the oil. Reduce heat to low and add the aromatic paste. Stir constantly for about 10 minutes to ensure that the raw ingredients are thoroughly cooked.

Add the tomato paste, salt, sugar and stir well. Add the strained tamarind liquid a little at a time, stirring well, and continue until all liquid has been added and absorbed, and the sambal has turned a deep, rich red.

Serve with grilled fish, or as a condiment to your favorite meat, noodle or rice dishes.

The cooled sambal can be kept in a clean, airtight container for a few weeks in the refrigerator.


  1. I was transported by your tale, to some idyllic place I have always dreamed of living in. Fresh fish is the best thing one can ever eat, in my opinion, and lucky are the people who have an endless supply in their backyard. Sambal is one thing I've grown to love...super appetite inducer!

  2. Yum! That looks nice! I love Sembal. Especially with Seafood.

  3. This dish looks and sounds extraordinary. Your post brought back childhood memories of fishing in a canoe with my dad.

  4. OMG!! IKAN BAKAR!!!


    I was JUST talking about Ikan Bakar to a friend a few weeks ago, about how much we miss it, and how badly I want to eat sambal, hehe. Love your photos they look so mouthwateringly delicious i wish photos could turn into real food!

  5. Ohhh that looks great. I have been craving fried fish for weeks.