IN some ways, I think I have moved up in the world… ahem!

I use good skincare, no more Oil of Ulan or Olay or whatever the new name is – even if my daughter’s great-grandmother has been using it since she was a teenager and has flawless skin to show for it even at 80.

I don’t care what people say about cosmetics being the biggest con job, and why they occupy most expensive retail space, and that they are all the same stuff packed in different packaging – I won’t use cheap lipstick.

Actually that’s about as high up in the world as I got, or as delusional  – I am still driving the most generic car, living in a most humble neighbourhood, wearing high street clothes, and I don’t own a single designer handbag.

Last Tuesday I had lunch at La Fite in Shangri-la – a good meal of black cod, with good starters and delicious desserts.
And all week, I was hankering for good ol’ ikan kembung.

That could also be ‘cos I had a bag of ikan kembung in the freezer that my aunt had given me. She cooks mostly fish, and shops for them with the same enthusiasm I shop for clothes and shoes. My mother and aunts’ favourite jaunts are to the markets, especially afternoon markets where they get fish fresh from the boat. We have waited for fishermen in Kuala Muda and Pulau Pangkor, and they think it makes perfect sense to take the old roads so we could stop at Kuala Selangor to buy fresh fish.   They think nothing of paying RM150 (or as my mom likes to say, “… it’s only how much you girls pay for a dress…”) for a fish, and they are most happy extolling about how fresh a fish is…. I am not complaining, I always get free fish. The good fillets are for the precious grand-daughter; I get cheap mackerel.

My grandmother said in her time, only the poor ate ikan kembung because it was the cheapest fish. The rich fed it to the cats. Well, it’s not so cheap anymore, and I love them. There are a few varieties, but I like the smaller, flatter ones that are sweeter and have a finer texture. I like them rubbed with salt and turmeric, and deep fried till they are so crunchy I could chew up everything but the backbone. Not everyone will eat ikan kembung because they are worried about choking on the fine bones, but the bones don’t rattle me.

And I am proud to say fish bones don’t rattle my nine-year daughter. My aunt takes care of her, so she eats loads of fish. And initially she only ate fish fillets. But as she grew older she wanted whatever fish we were eating. We were really careful about picking out the bones for her, and I could just imagine her gagging on a fish bone – as I had the pleasure of experiencing a few times. But then she just blithely picked out (or spat out)  fine bones if she found them in her mouth, and I guess we eased off a bit. If I may just digress, that girl is a trooper – when she first had hot food like curry chicken, she paced round and round with her tongue hung out, and came back for more – absolutely no drama. These days, she just gets a big tall glass of water when she sees curry on the table, and then sits down for second and third helpings of rice. That girl has many challenges to overcome, but she is no whiny whingy wimpy brat.

Anyway, my daughter also likes fried ikan kembung, though she hasn’t gotten to chewing the heads yet. I like this with some sambal too – it’s a recipe I learnt from a friend’s grandmother. It’s the simplest recipe – just shallots and dried chilli, and that’s all. The old matriarch told me to ignore everyone else, and forget about lemongrass, turmeric, belacan, and whatnot. It’s just blending together shallots and dried chilli, and then patiently tumis the mixture till the oil rises to the top. Please don’t stint on the oil, and try not to fry the sambal in a non-stick wok. You will need to use quite a bit of sugar, maybe two tablespoons, but it really depends on your taste.

I was also happy to cook this for an old friend I have known forever for our Sunday lunch. I also cooked bitter gourd omelette because she is one of the few people I know who likes bitter gourd… it’ll be a long time more before I could convince the little one to try it – she is still averse to anything green.



8-10 ikan kembung, cleaned and gutted

1-2 teaspoon salt

1-2 teaspoon ground turmeric

oil for frying

15 shallots

15-20 dried chillies, deseeded and soaked in hot water for 10 minutes.

1/2 cup oil

salt and sugar, to taste

Rub the fish with the salt and turmeric. Heat the oil in a wok, and fry the fish. Set aside.

Blend the shallots and dried chillies. Heat the oil, and fry the mixture over a low-to-medium heat. Stir occassionally, until the oil rises to the top.

Season with salt and sugar, according to taste. This is a full-bodied sambal, so you have to be brave with your salt and sugar.


4 Responses to Sambal Fish

  1. Neev says:

    I too loved ikan kembung as a child and I still long for it now. I dont find ikan kembung here in Melb easily so I settle for any fish that looks alike. Unlike yr lil one my daughter would never have anything other that a fillet.
    Will definatelt try the sambal soon, can I use normal red onions instead of shallots?

  2. this is what i call real good food! we make it the same simple style, but with fresh chillies. bitter gourd is one of my favorites!

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