A common complaint about many Malaysian recipes is that they are usually complicated and often have a long list of intimidatingly exotic ingredients. Whilst the resulting meals are invariably worth the effort, for the most part this particular gripe about Malaysian food isn’t completely without merit.
Like most expat Malaysians, I am forever seeking out viable substitutes for ingredients that we just take for granted at home. Candlenuts (buah keras) get substituted with blanched almonds, galangal (lengkuas) with ginger, bokkoms for salt fish and so on. For the most part the integrity of the dishes are rarely compromised, but there are some ingredients for which there are simply no substitutes and the meal invariably suffers for their subsequent omission.
Thankfully, however, there are some great Malaysian dishes that defy these inherent pitfalls and are surprisingly easy to make, Assam Prawns being a case in point. Requiring just a few basic ingredients and a very short cooking time, Assam Prawns pack quite a punch for its meagre effort level. Provided you can source some tamarind pulp, this dish offers an authentic taste of Asia without any of the usual hassles and exotic ingredients associated with Malaysian cooking.
Beyond being ridiculously simple to make, Assam Prawns are a true Nyonya classic and were, with good reason, a firm family favourite at my grandmother’s dinner table. This dish has it all! Sweet prawns, slavered in a simple tangy tamarind coating; what more could you want? This is truly finger-lickin’ good food, Malaysian style!
Note: Whilst the thought of it might seem strange to non-Asians, part of the joy of this dish is eating the prawns with their shells on. Encrusted in all that lovely sweet tamarind sauce, the prawn’s soft shell is perfectly edible and is, in fact, a great source of calcium. A word of warning though, don’t eat the sharp tail-shells and don’t forget to suck the prawn’s head. I’m serious, the tail-shell will totally choke you and the head is amazingly sweet and tasty when sucked. Trust me, your ultimate enjoyment of this incredible meal depends on both of these tips, so get sucking!
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Assam Prawns (Nyonya Tamarind Prawns)
- 30g tamarind pulp
- 1/4 cup hot water
- 400g large prawns (shells and heads on)
- 4 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tbsp. white sugar
- 1/2 tbsp. dark soya sauce
- Sliced cucumber for garnish
- Start by soaking the tamarind pulp in the hot water for at least 15 minutes, or until the tamarind is soft and the seeds are easily removed from the pulp
- Trim the feelers from the prawns and then marinate in the tamarind water (pulp and all) for an hour in the fridge
- Place a wok over a medium heat and pour in the vegetable oil. Add the marinated prawns
- Fry the prawns until they are cooked through and the tamarind marinate starts to dry out (about 10 minutes)
- Add the sugar, salt and dark soya sauce
- Increase the heat slightly and continue frying until the mixture begins to caramelise
- Serve immediately with the sliced cucumber as garnish