Timorese Fish-and-Tamarind Soup


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.

Timorese Fish Tamarind Soup
Photo: Photo by Greg DuPree / Food Styling by Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell
Total Time:
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.


  • 1 pound boneless, skinless meaty white fish (such as sea bass, cod, or halibut), cut into 1-inch pieces

  • 1 ½ cups plus 1 tablespoon water, divided

  • ¼ cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons Tamarind Water (see Note), divided

  • 1 ¾ teaspoons fine sea salt, divided, plus more to taste

  • 3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil (such as canola or grapeseed oil)

  • 2 medium tomatoes (about 10 ounces), stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces

  • 1 large shallot (about 2 1/2 ounces), halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

  • 1 (3 1/2-inch-long) fresh red chile (about 1/2 ounce), stemmed, shaken to remove seeds, and thinly sliced (about 3 tablespoons)

  • 3 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)

  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger

  • 5 makrut lime leaves, stemmed and thinly sliced crosswise (about 1 tablespoon)

  • 1 (6-inch) lemongrass stalk

  • 1 ½ cups vegetable stock

  • 4 scallions, thinly sliced diagonally (about 2/3 cup)

  • ½ loosely packed fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced, divided


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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

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