Ikan Pesmol: Indonesian fish dish in yellow pickled spices

A bowl of Ikan Pesmol - the tangy and spicy fish dish from Indonesia

Ikan Pesmol

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

Yellow pickle fish - Ikan Pesmol - on a white bowl

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. 

A bowl of Indonesian Ikan Pesmol - the fish in yellow pickle - with chillies and parsley garnish

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. 

Kemiri (Candlenuts)

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. 

You can use the fresh galangal, the dry one, or the paste one. 

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. 

rainbow trout pieces with salt and tamarind paste
1. Marinate the fish with tamarind and salt
Frying the fish
2. Deep-fry the fish, or
Spices and herbs for Ikan Pesmol
3. Fry all the spices and herbs on a large cooking pan
Adding the lemon juice to the spices
4. Add the lemon juice
Add the water to the spice
5 Add the water
Adding the cooked fish to the spices
6. Add the fish
Cooking the fish with a lid on
7. Put the lid on and leave to cook for 3 minutes
Ready cooked Pesmol Ikan
8. Your Ikan Pesmol is ready

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. 

But, if you like to, you can serve the dish with simple stir-fry vegetables, some vegetable fritters such as sweetcorn fritters or mung-bean fritters, and prawn crackers.

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 ?.

Related posts

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 please follow me on Facebook, Instagram and/or Pinterest to sneak a peek at what’s cooking in my kitchen. 

And before you leave, you may want to check my other recipes that you may like. 

Thank you and all the best. 

Yield: 7

Ikan Pesmol

A dish of Pesmol Ikan - fish dish in tangy and spicy sauce from west Java

Ikan Pesmol is a fish dish from West Java, Indonesia that has a refreshing tangy and spicy flavour.

Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 35 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes


  • 1 kg/ 35.27 oz firm flesh fish.
  • 1 tsp tamarind paste.
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder.
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder.
  • 1-inch ginger, minced.
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced.
  • 1 red onion, chopped.
  • 15 Kemiri/ candlenuts.
  • 2 Salam leaves.
  • 2 Lemongrass.
  • ½ -inch Galangal.
  • 1 tbsp Sugar.
  • 1 ½ tsp Salt + extra for the marinade.
  • 2 tsp White vinegar or juice from one lemon.
  • 1 cup/ 240 ml/ 8.12 fl.oz water.
  • 5-7 fresh bird’s eye chillies.
  • 4 tbsp cooking oil


  1. Clean, scale, cut, and wash the fish. Marinate it with tamarind paste and 1 teaspoon of salt. Set aside.
  2. Using pestle and mortar, or a food processor, pound the ginger, garlic, chopped onion, candlenuts and galangal into a paste. Set aside.
  3. Grill the fish until it’s thoroughly cooked. Or, if you want to do it traditionally, you can deep fry the fish. Set aside.
  4. Heat 4 tablespoons of oil on a large cooking pan or a wok. Put the pounded spices, chilli powder, turmeric, Salam leaf, lemongrass, salt, and sugar in. Let it fry until the spices release aroma, and it looks shiny. 
  5. Add in the vinegar or lemon juice. Cook further for a minute.
  6. Then add the water in, give it a stir and let it cook with a lid on. Until the water is reduced and you have a nice thick sauce.
  7. Put the fish in the sauce. Stir carefully until all the fish is coated with the spice. Leave it to cook with a lid on for about 3 minutes. 

Nutrition Information



Serving Size


Amount Per Serving Calories 784Total Fat 60gSaturated Fat 9gTrans Fat 0gUnsaturated Fat 48gCholesterol 82mgSodium 1334mgCarbohydrates 27gFiber 6gSugar 12gProtein 44g

The nutrition calculation you find here is just a guide provided by online nutrition calculator. You should not use to substitute advice from nutritionists or health practitioners.

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