This is a vivifying soup, good in warm or cold weather. The chile and ginger gently warm your mouth, while acidic tomatoes and tart tamarind come together in the delicate and fragrant broth, which, while light, is full of flavor and satisfying. The fish gently poaches in the broth during the last minutes of cooking, which infuses both the soup base and the fish itself with aroma and flavor, leaving the fish tender, flaky, and moist.

May 2022


Credit: Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Melissa Grey / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Recipe Summary

35 mins

Fish features daily in the traditional diet of many Indonesians, caught fresh from the rivers and sea in a maritime country made up of 17,500 islands. In the capital city of Kupang, located on the eastern island of West Timor, you can find this Timorese fish-and-tamarind soup, known as ikan kuah asam (fish in a sour broth). Traditionally the sourness comes from belimbing wuluh (baby starfruit), but in this version, cookbook author and recipe developer Lara Lee uses tamarind water made by massaging the pulp from a tamarind brick or from whole tamarind pods with hot water—it's a trick she learnt from her Timorese aunties. Lemongrass, lime leaves, chile, and ginger form the lingering flavors and aromatic backdrop to the lightly spicy broth, but it is the tamarind that is the star, providing a delicately balanced combination of the sweet and the sour to create a broth that is both comforting and light.


Ingredient Checklist


Instructions Checklist
  • Stir together fish, 1 tablespoon water, 1 1/2 teaspoons tamarind water, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

  • Heat oil in large saucepan over medium. Add tomatoes, shallot, chile, garlic, ginger, lime leaves, and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook, stirring often, until mixture is softened and tomatoes are broken down, about 6 minutes. Meanwhile, bruise lemongrass using the back or spine of a chef's knife until softened, and tie into a knot.

  • Add tied lemongrass stalk, stock, scallions, and remaining 1 1/2 cups water to mixture in pan. Bring to a boil over medium-high. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until flavors meld, about 5 minutes. 

  • Stir remaining 1/4 cup tamarind water and remaining 1 teaspoon salt into mixture in pan. Stir in fish. Bring soup to a gentle simmer over medium. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook until fish is just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in half of the basil (about 1/4 cup). Season with additional salt to taste. Remove and discard lemongrass. Ladle soup evenly into 4 bowls. Sprinkle evenly with remaining basil.


Associated Recipe: Tamarind Water

Suggested Pairing

Citrusy coastal Italian white: Argiolas Costamolino Vermentino di Sardegna