Join us as we indulged in our fascination with stinky delicacies by tasting seven different types of pekasam from the northern state of Kedah.
” Pekasam kind of wonderful… “
From the terasi shrimp paste of the Indonesian islands and the nam pla fish sauce of our northern Thai neighbours, to the shiokara fermented seafood of Japan and the alamang patis shrimp sauce of the Philippines, we East Asians really like our fermented seafood. Whether it’s belacan, cencaluk or other stinky delights, these delicacies play an important role in our every day meals.
Our love for this stinky stuff is generations old and can be traced back to the rice bowls of the Mekong Delta. Research done by Messrs Kenneth Ruddle and Naomichi Ishige (stinky seafood fans themselves, we reckon) have inferred several reasons as to why we’ve been fermenting our seafood.
Proper pekasam, as we’ve found, is quite different from the ikan masin most of us are more familiar with. First of all, it’s not supposed to be salty, or at least not overwhelmingly so. Many people eat a whole piece of pekasam with their meal, while we wouldn’t think of eating a whole piece of ikan masin in one go! It’s actually supposed to be pleasantly sour, hence the “asam” in its name.
Another is the texture itself. Salted fish tends to soften the fish into an almost crumbly soft texture, but properly made pekasam actually firms up the flesh quite nicely.
For fish, and freshwater fish, especially, it simply seems to be because of the seasons. During the rainy season, the waters would rise in the Mekong, and an abundance of fish would be easily available. To make the catch last past the rainy season, folk began fermenting them in various ways, and a lot of the time, with the rice they were growing. Pla ra (Thai), shiokara (Japanese), and our beloved delicacy from the north, pekasam, all involve rice in their preparation.
We’ll leave you to read the rest of Ruddle and Ishige’s tasty research here, and focus our attention on the pekasam.
Contrary to what some people think, pekasam isn’t a type of fish, but a type of preparation. What essentially happens is that freshwater fish are caught from the paddy fields, cleaned and processed with salt for a few days. The salt is then washed off thoroughly and then mixed with fried beras, which differs from shiokara, which uses cooked rice for fermentation. Tamarind juice and brown sugar is added, then the mixture is left to ferment in an airtight container for about two weeks.
The fish is now ready for consumption and will actually survive for months even outside the fridge if kept well, though we imagine you’ll be eating it way before it really goes off!
I hauled back a good selection of pekasam back from Kedah and decided to pit all of them against each other in our most stinky food fight yet: pekasam! Taking out the guesswork of picking the right pekasam for you? All in a day’s work for us. Read on and find out which ones were our favourites…
When fried til crisp, the skin’s texture closely resembles that of a fried chicken (!) and is a touch too pickled in taste as Honey and I bouth found it a bit sour. Ryan our photog loved this one the best, as to him, it had the best balance of flavours. Kedah Fried Pekasam, anyone?
One of the most earthy of the bunch, this was my personal favourite as I could really taste its paddy field origins. That very same aspect didn’t go down too well with the rest of the troop, though – Ryan likened it to soil (and a longkang too), but the fried rice bits that come off this fish was terrific when fried with onions. Eat it with a bit of paceri nenas or terung to cut the flavour with a twang.
It’s small for a tilapia, but that’s because it’s young tilapia that has made its way from the rivers to the paddy fields via the irrigation waterways. The skin doesn’t come off as easily from this fish as it did from the others, and was almost fatty, much like the fat you get under a chicken skin. It was also the juiciest, moist like regular ikan masin. Taste-wise it was rather vinegary, according to Farah, “almost like it was brined.”
You want a fish from the paddy fields? You’ve got one. Our puyu sawah was not shy about flavour at all, but it was one of those “the more you eat, the more interesting it gets” type of things, in a good way! We ended up being all right with it in the end, though it would not be our first choice.
Baby ikan puyu really does taste like a mini version of its larger cousin puyu sawah – sour, but not yet muddy. Honey and I both agreed that it was the most sour of the lot, though Honey found this to help with its addictiveness. That, and its perfect little size earned it the honour of being Honey’s favourite of the lot.
The texture is almost like catfish, with a dark and almost smoky flavour. Farah loved this one the best, saying that its other dominant flavour which tasted like preserved Chinese vegetables, would be “killer with bubur”. We agreed, not-so-secretly plotting to do just that in the near future.
Haruan was universally agreed on as the entry-level pekasam: least offensive in flavour and texture. It was more on the salty side, which was perfect for those who loved ikan masin but had yet to try pekasam.
And there you have it. Seven different kinds of fish, treated the exact same way, yet yielding so many different results. Such simple and humble fare that had such variety it had us quibbling over what made a pekasam tasty. Now it’s your turn to head up north and buy your own stash. Let us know your favourites!