Spice Island: Shrimp in Tamarind Sauce (Garam Assam)

The tiny Southeast Asian island-country of Singapore owes much of its history and ethnically diverse cuisine to piquant spices and herbs.

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Shrimp in Tamarind Sauce (Garam Assam)
Serves 4

Assam is the Malay word for tamarind, and garam means irresistible. The tangy, sour flavor of tamarind, a paste made from the fruit of the tamarind tree, is said to stimulate the appetite, and it’s a popular seasoning in many Singaporean dishes.

• 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
• 4 cups water
• 2-inch piece of galangal
• 1-inch piece of turmeric
• 5 hazelnuts
• 10 shallots
• 2 Thai chiles
• 1 teaspoon dried lemongrass (or one stalk fresh)
• 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 2 tablespoons sugar
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 3/4 pound shrimp or fish

1. Place the tamarind paste in a medium mixing bowl and add water. Stir until the paste flavors the water to create a tamarind juice.
2. Strain out any leftover tamarind paste and keep only the liquid.
3. Grind the galangal, turmeric, hazelnuts, shallots, chiles, and lemongrass in a food processor or blender.
4. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or a large pan over high heat.
5. Add the ground spice mixture and 1 tablespoon of the tamarind juice and stir-fry for two minutes.
6. Continuing on high heat, add the remaining tamarind juice, sugar, and salt.
7. Bring to a boil, addthe shrimp or fish and simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes. Serve over steamed rice.

EXOTIC CULINARY HERBS FROM SOUTHEAST ASIA
Bunga kantan (Etlingera elatior). This edible stalklike plant, called torch ginger, produces lovely blooms. The flowering shoots are used in Malaysian curries. Indian vendors shred bunga kantan over a dish called rojak (a mixture of tropical fruits and vegetables).

Galangal (Alpinia galanga). Called lengkuas in Malay, this orange-colored rhizome tastes similar to ginger and is used in spicy cooking all over Southeast Asia.

Kaffir lime (Citrus hystrix). These very fragrant leaves are cooked into soups and Malay curries.

Kangkung (Ipomoea aquatica). The dark-green leaves of this aquatic plant make a popular stir-fried vegetable. In English, kangkung is called water convolvulus or water spinach.

Laksa leaf (Polygonum hydropiper). The dark green leaves of this native Southeast Asian herb are peppery in taste and used as a flavoring in a locally popular dish, appropriately named laksa, and in other Chinese and Malaysian dishes. It is sometimes called Vietnamese mint.

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus). Called serai in Malay, lemongrass stalks are chopped and pounded, then added to piquant sauces in much of Singapore cuisine to give it a sweet, lemony flavor.

Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera). The edible root of the beautiful and legendary floating lotus flower is used in many Chinese dishes. You can buy the flowers at the wet market still encased in mud to keep them fresh and moist.

Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius). Known as screwpine in English, pandan has spiky leaves used to flavor foods and to wrap meats for grilling. Juice from the leaves is used in cakes and desserts. The fresh leaves smell like freshly mown hay and are used to scent the air. Pandan leaves are available at the wet market, and you see them growing in pots on the balconies of Singaporean flats.

Tamarind (Tamarindus indica). Taken from the pods of the tamarind tree, the pulp is strained to obtain sour, fragrant juice for cooking. Tamarind for cooking comes in blocks of pulp or as a concentrated paste. In Singapore, you’ll see tamarind listed on menus as assam, its Malay name.

 


Laurel Kallenbach writes from her Boulder, Colorado, home about travel, herbal medicine, and holistic health.