It would be a stretch to call Tanjung Ipoh a town. This sleepy speck of a place in Negeri Sembilan state, 1 1/2 to 2 hours south of Kuala Lumpur (assuming no traffic), is barely a village, just a few old wooden buildings straddling a two-lane highway.
Around the 15th century Minangkabau from West Sumatra began settling in Negeri Sembilan. These days the state's population, like any other Malaysian state's, is mostly a mix of Chinese, Indians, and Malays. Yet vestiges of West Sumatran culture survive in the form of the fine collection of traditional stilted wooden houses adorned with characteristic Minang bowed roofs that dot Tanjung Ipoh and the villages around it.
We're here on this Sunday morning for the once-a-week market. It turns out to be quite small by Temerloh standards, just twenty or so food stalls (and others offering assorted sundries like textiles and sunglasses) set up in a parking lot a 5-minute walk from the highway. The mostly Malay vendors peddle products we know from Temerloh, like cendawan kukur, feathery fungi scraped from tree trunks (opening photo), and fresh honey.
As at any Malay market there's a wide selection of kuih (sweets), like these springy banana cakes made with glutinous rice flour.
But soon enough we come across foods unfamiliar. These buah asam gelugor are usually sold sliced and dried as asam keping ('sour slices'), an ingredient essential to a good laksa Penang (laksa assam).
Segments of the hard fruit and their leaves, daun asam gelugor, slivered,
are used to add tartness, especially to lemak (coconuty rich) dishes.
A vendor selling both leaves and the fruit also offers ikan sembilang salai (smoked catfish, known also as ikan keli; salai='smoked').
These frankly ugly specimens are which, the vendor tells us, are smoked for about an hour, turn out to be deliciously moist and fragrant, as fine as any imported mackerel. He recommends cooking them with cili padi (small, fiery chilies like the ones pictured below), turmeric, and coconut milk - no garlic, no onion, no shallots. Just before serving, he advises, taste the dish for salt and tart it up with either buah asam fruit or leaves.
His pitch is convincing, and we buy up the last of his ikan, as well as some chilies and fruit and leaves, splitting the haul with a friend.
Back home, ingredients sit in the fridge for a couple of days till a craving for Malay food strikes. The fish requires some deboning but other than that the dish comes together quickly, a wonderful mix of smoke and sourness and coconuty sweetness.
Ikan Salai Lemak
Substitute any smoked fish but salmon (mackerel, trout) for the ikan salai, and asam keping, which should be available anywhere SE Asian ingredients are sold (lime juice is a last-ditch but probably workable substitute) for buah asam gelugor or daun asam gelugor. Since moving to Malaysia I've become a coconut milk snob - without a doubt, freshly pressed is best, and it's easily and quickly achieved with either unsweetened dessicated coconut or fresh or frozen grated coconut. But canned coconut milk will suffice.
Ingredient amounts are very fluid. Taste as you go. The end result should be neither overpoweringly spicy not overpoweringly sour, and the flavor or turmeric should be detectable. Expect the fish to fall apart -- the end result is a not-too-thick but quite rich shredded fish coconut 'stew', nice eaten with rice and balanced by a stir-fried green vegetable (belacan optional!).
350-450 grams (little less than a pound) ikan sembilang salai, or other smoked fish (not salmon)
5-cm piece of fresh turmeric, roughly chopped OR 1 tsp ground turmeric
a handful of fresh red chilies - hot or not, depending on your tolerance
about 2 cups coconut milk**
a handful of daun asam gelugor OR a few segments of fresh buah gelugor OR a couple of asam keping slices OR lime juice to taste
1. Pull any bones from the fish. Leave skin on or remove it, as you like. Skin will make for a fattier and smokier dish.
2. In a mortar, pound the chilies and turmeric to a rough paste. OR, combine the chilies, turmeric, and about 1/4 cup coconut milk in a blender and roughly puree. Taste for hotness and add chilies, if desired.
3. Heat the coconut milk in a saucepan. Stir in the chile-turmeric mixture, bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately turn down to a low simmer. Let the mixture simmer to thicken a bit, about 5-10 mins.
4. Add the fish and allow the mixture to continue to simmer slowly while the fish breaks up, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes more.
5. Taste and adjust for salt. Add souring agent, half at a time, tasting as you go. (If using leaves, you'll need to let them just soften. If using lime juice, remove the mixture from the heat first.) When the dish has achieved a nice balance of rich coconuty sweetness and tartness, transfer to a bowl. Serve hot or at room temperature.
**To make abt 1 1/2 cups coconut milk from fresh coconut, place 2 cups fresh or frozen grated coconut into a blender with 1 1/4 cups very hot water. Blend for a couple of seconds, then empty into a cheesecloth-lined strainer placed over a bowl. Allow to cool for a few minutes before gathering the corners of the cloth and squeezing to extract as much liquid as possible milk. (This is 'thick' coconut milk. 'Thin' coconut milk can be extracted by repeating the process with the squeezed coconut.)
For 1 1/2 cups coconut milk from dessicated coconut, place 2 cups coconut into a pan, add 2 1/2 cups water, and bring to a simmer. Pour the contents of the pan into a blender and follow instructions as above.