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Ikan Pesmol is a spicy fish dish from West Java (Sundanese), Indonesia. It has pickle flavour as it uses vinegar in its spices.
The word Pesmol itself refers to the type of cooked spices for the dish. And Ikan literally means fish.
Just like any other Sundanese foods, this yellow pickling fish dish has a light and fresh flavour with the heat from the fresh chillies and tanginess from the vinegar.
And it does not use coconut milk. Instead, it uses Kemiri/ candlenuts that give the dish a nutty flavour. Because Sundanese cuisines do not use coconut milk very often in their savoury meals. Most of their foods use lots of fresh herbs and chillies.
Traditionally, Ikan Pesmol uses Indian Mackerel (which is called Ikan Kembung in Indonesian). However, after experimenting many times using various types of fish, I can safely say that you can cook any kind of fish with this recipe.
Just make sure it’s a type of fish that cooks well and doesn’t break easily. For example red mullet, trout, Spanish mackerel (King fish), salmon, sea bass, etc. And don’t use fish fillets, because they break easily. The only fillets that are good for this dish are tuna and swordfish.
For this recipe, I used rainbow trout. Simply because I almost always have this fish in my freezer — as the result of being a wife of a fly-fisherman ?.
If you’re not keen with fish or you can’t get any fish, you can cook the dish chicken as well. Chicken Pesmol is actually one of our favourites.
Main ingredients to make Pesmol Ikan
Traditionally, the Sundanese people use Ikan Kembung (Indian mackerel) for this refreshing flavoured fish dish.
But you can always use any type of fish you like. Just make sure you choose whole fish and not fish fillets. Because fish fillets will break easily.
I tried with Cod fillet a long time ago, it was tasty. But the fish just flaked away.
The first time I made the dish, I used Indian mackerel. However, it’s not easy for me to get this type of fish near where I live. I have to go to farther Asian shops to find it. And I’m lazy when it comes to shopping ?.
Besides, my husband always brings us rainbow trout every time he goes out for fly-fishing. So, rainbow fish is almost always there in our freezer. Therefore, now I use rainbow trout for my Ikan Pesmol. And it’s actually more delicious ?.
Chillies play a big part in Sundanese cuisines. For this sour and slightly spicy fish, traditionally, the recipe calls for chillies for the spice paste and whole chillies in the dish itself.
For convenience, I use chilli powder and some whole chillies instead.
Turmeric is one of the main ingredients for this Pesmol Ikan. It gives the bright yellow colour to the dish that makes it look appetizing.
Vinegar or lemon juice
The original recipe calls for vinegar. However, I personally don’t really like the vinegar smell ?. I’m sorry. So, I swapped it with lemon juice.
I used the juice of one lemon for this recipe. But of course, you can use vinegar if that’s what you have at home.
Ginger and garlic
I often have ready-crushed/ pasted ginger and garlic in my freezer. So I would just take a few cubes out for this recipe.
However, you can freshly make the paste out of 1-inch ginger and 4 cloves of garlic. Mince or ground them together with other spices. Details are explained below.
Now, Kemiri or candlenuts in English is one of the ingredients that used to be very difficult for me to get.
Should you find it hard to get Kemiri, the most recommended substitute is Macadamia nuts. And, recently I’ve been thinking about Hazelnuts too. Simply because hazelnuts have similar textures and flavour with Kemiri.
Disclaimer though, I haven’t tried with all these substitutes. Because thanks to technology, I can get them online now.
Salam leaf and lemongrass
I must say that in West Java, the word Salam Sereh which literally means Salam leaf and Lemongrass is such a common word in their culinary recipes. These two herbs are a pair used in many Sundanese recipes.
But you may find it hard to get Salam leaf. I notice that it’s not commonly available in the west.
Although I haven’t used it in the dish, judging by the smell, I think curry leaves are probably the closest substitute that you can use. However, don’t use bay leaf. I tried. And it was not good.
In the worst case, you can just skip the Salam leaf if you can’t get it. But make sure you use lemongrass.
This type of root-ginger has become more and more popular in the west now. So it is now fairly easy to get hold of this galangal, or Lengkuas as we call it in Indonesian.
But please don’t use the powder form. I don’t recommend it. I tried it and I regretted it.
How to make the real Sundanese yellow pickling fish
In essence, there are two things you need to make this Ikan Pesmol, firstly you cook the fish, and secondly, you cook the spice, then just simply put those two things together.
Cook the fish
Indonesian people almost always use whole fish in their fish dish, not fish fillet. And we have a particular way of cleaning and getting the fish ready.
We scale the fish until it’s free from scale. Then we gut the fish by cutting the belly part from the lower end near the tail up to the head. Take all the inside of the fish out. Starting from the guts, the row, the gills and blood. If you’re not keen on the fish head, chop the head off. Lastly, wash the fish with water until it’s clean and free from any trace of blood.
Afterwards, we marinate the fish with either the following combination:
- Tamarind and salt.
- Lime juice and salt.
- Lemon juice and salt.
When you’re ready to cook your fish for this Pesmol recipe, you can either grill the fish or deep-fry the fish.
The original recipe calls for deep-frying. And I used to do so as well. But I find that not only grilling the fish is a healthier option, but it is also easier to do. Because I can just pop the tray of the fish in the grill while I get on with the spice. It saves a lot of time.
Make the Pesmol spice/ Bumbu Ikan Pesmol
All you have to do is make the spice paste, and fry it with the rest of the ingredients.
When you add the vinegar/ lemon juice and water in, you will just need to let it cook until the sauce is bubbling and thickened.
Put them together
As soon as your fish and your sauce are cooked, you can put them together. Leave it to further cook for about three minutes or just to make sure the fish absorb the flavour of the spice.
Side dishes to go with Ikan Pesmol
I personally don’t need anything else when I have this yummy Ikan Pesmol.
Just like any other dish with spices, this fish dish is tastier when you leave it overnight. Maybe because the fish absorb the flavour over time.
So I suggest that if you want to serve the dish for a gathering, you cook it a day before. Leave it to cool completely then store it in the refrigerator/ fridge. When you’re ready to serve, you can reheat on the stove/ cooker. Add a little water before reheating.
Make sure you only reheat the portions that you need. Because I don’t think it’s good to keep reheating the food.
Enjoy the recipe. And drop me a message to let me know what you think of it ?.
I hope you find this Ikan Pesmol recipe is good and now you’re thinking of trying it. When you do, it will be great if you can share your experience or what you think about the recipe in the comments below. So others can benefit too.
And before you leave, you may want to check my other recipes that you may like.
- Simply authentic Indonesian Beef Rendang.
- Ayam Goreng Bumbu – Indonesian spicy fried chicken.
- Lontong Sayur Betawi – Hard-boiled rice with vegetable curry.
- The best Indonesian chicken sweet soy sauce – Ayam Kecap Manis.
- Nasi Goreng Tuna – Indonesian tuna fried-rice.
- Ayam Penyet – Indonesian smashed chicken in chilli sambal.
- Nasi Uduk – fragrant rice cooked in spiced coconut milk.
- Lamb Tongseng – braised lamb in spicy coconut milk with sweet soy sauce.
- Lamb Satay – the copycat of Indonesian Sate Kambing.
- Sate Ayam – Indonesian chicken satay with authentic flavour.
Thank you and all the best.