There is always a jar of tamarind, or asam jawa, in my kitchen. It is an essential ingredient in our food, as it’s the base for many of the curries in Peranakan cuisine. Tamarind is a souring agent, but there is also a hint of sweetness in it. So, it’s not as sharp as vinegar, or as tart as citrus fruits.
In Malaysia, we use the tamarind pulp around the seeds. Some manufacturers would remove the seeds, but according to my mother those are not so good. I don’t know the basis for that observation since we throw away the seeds anyway, but I concede to her authoritative knowledge.
Tamarind is sold in the market, and usually keeps for a long time. The rule is to choose tamarind that is brown. The longer you keep it, the darker it gets. To use the tamarind, just add hot water to it, and use the juice.
It took me awhile to learn to gauge how much tamarind to use for a dish… and it’s still not second nature to me yet. I am still tasting my curry as I cook it to check if there is enough tamarind. My asam pedas (spicy sourish fish curry) is still not up to notch – “Why doesn’t it taste like your mom’s?” – because I can’t get the tamarind right yet.
Tamarind prawns, or asam prawns, is however easy to make. It’s usually on the menu of most Peranakan restaurants. There is nothing much to do except to marinate the prawns in tamarind and season with salt and sugar, and then fry it quickly.
I like my asam prawns a little moist, so I don’t fry it till it’s dry.But some people like it that way, so it’s a matter of preference. Use medium-sized prawns with thin shells for this dish. I love the tamarind that coats the prawns, so I usually lick the shells clean. The best part is the prawn heads as the sourness of the tamarind really brings out their sweetness.
600g medium prawns, remove one segment of the shell
1 tablespoon tamarind, add 3 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon salt, or according to taste
a dash white pepper
1 teaspoon sugar, or according to taste
5 tablespoon cooking oil
Marinate the prawns in the tamarind juice, with the pulp and all. Add the rest of the seasoning. Mix well to make sure the prawns are all coated. It’s easier to do this with your hands.
Leave aside for about 20 minutes.
Heat the cooking oil. Fry the prawns until it turns pink over medium heat. Just before removing the prawns, turn the heat up and turn the prawns quickly. This will make the prawns a little crispy on the outside while its flesh remains moist.
You’ll know it’s ready because the dish is so aromatic.
Serve with hot rice and sambal belacan