Ikan Pesmol is a spicy fish dish from West Java (Sundanese), Indonesia. It has a pickle flavor 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 food, this yellow pickling fish dish has a light and fresh flavor with the heat from the fresh chilies and tanginess from the vinegar.
And it does not use coconut milk. Instead, it uses Kemiri/ candlenuts that give the dish a nutty flavor. Because Sundanese cuisines do not use coconut milk often in their savory meals. Most of their foods use lots of fresh herbs and chilies.
Traditionally, Ikan Pesmol uses Indian Mackerel (which is called Ikan Kembung in Indonesian). However, after experimenting with various types of fish many times, I can safely say that you can cook any fish with this recipe.
Just ensure it’s a fish that cooks well and doesn’t break easily. For example, red mullet, trout, Spanish mackerel (Kingfish), 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 the wife of a fly fisherman.
If you’re not keen on fish or can’t get any fish, you can cook the chicken dish. Chicken Pesmol is actually one of our favorites.
Main ingredients to make Pesmol Ikan
The Sundanese traditionally use Ikan Kembung (Indian mackerel) for this refreshing flavored fish dish.
But you can always use any 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, and 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 more Asian shops to find it. And I’m lazy when it comes to shopping.
Besides, my husband always brings us rainbow trout whenever he goes 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.
Chilies play a big part in Sundanese cuisine. For this sour and slightly spicy fish, traditionally, the recipe calls for chilies for the spice paste and whole chilies in the dish itself.
For convenience, I use chili powder and some whole chilies instead.
Turmeric is one of the main ingredients for this Pesmol Ikan. It gives the dish a bright yellow color, making 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 take a few cubes out for this recipe.
However, you can freshly make the paste from 1-inch ginger and 4 garlic cloves. 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 flavors to Kemiri.
Disclaimer, I haven’t tried all these substitutes. Thanks to technology, I can get them online now.
Salam leaf and lemongrass
In West Java, the word Salam Sereh, which literally means Salam leaf and Lemongrass, is common 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 noticed 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 skip the Salam leaf if you can’t get it. But make sure you use lemongrass.
This type of root ginger has become increasingly popular in the West. 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, you need two things to make this Ikan Pesmol: firstly, you cook the fish, and secondly, you cook the spice, then just put those two things together.
Cook the fish
Indonesians almost always use whole fish in their fish dishes, not fish fillets. 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 from the lower end near the tail 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.
Afterward, 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 grill 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 pop the fish tray 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, you must let it cook until the sauce bubbles and thickens.
Put them together
You can assemble your fish and sauce as soon as you cook them. Leave it to cook for about three minutes, or to make sure the fish absorb the flavor of the spice.
Side dishes to go with Ikan Pesmol
I personally don’t need anything else when I have this yummy Ikan Pesmol.
Like any other dish with spices, this fish dish is tastier when you leave it overnight. Maybe because the fish absorb the flavor over time.
So I suggest that if you want to serve the dish for a gathering, you cook it a day before. Please leave it to cool completely, then store it in the refrigerator/ fridge. You can reheat it on the stove/ cooker when ready to serve. 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. Drop me a message to let me know what you think of it.
And if you need more recipe ideas for your trout fish, you can check this Russian fish soup.
More recipes from Indonesian kitchen
Before you leave, you may want to check my other Indonesian recipes 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 chili 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 flavor.
I hope you find this Ikan Pesmol recipe good and are now thinking of trying it. When you do, sharing your experience or thoughts about the recipe in the comments below would be great. So others can benefit too.
Thank you and all the best.
- Mixing bowls.
- Chopping board
- Kitchen knife
- Frying pan or
- 2.2 pounds firm flesh fish.
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste.
- 1 teaspoon Kashmiri chilli powder.
- ½ teaspoon 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 tablespoon Sugar.
- 1 ½ teaspoons Salt + extra for the marinade.
- 2 teaspoons White vinegar or juice from one lemon.
- 1 cup water.
- 5-7 fresh bird’s eye chillies.
- 4 tablespoons cooking oil
- Clean, scale, cut, and wash the fish. Marinate it with tamarind paste and 1 teaspoon of salt. Set aside.
- Using pestle and mortar, or a food processor, pound the ginger, garlic, chopped onion, candlenuts and galangal into a paste. Set aside.
- Grill the fish until it’s thoroughly cooked. Or, if you want to do it traditionally, you can deep fry the fish. Set aside.
- 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.
- Add in the vinegar or lemon juice. Cook further for a minute.
- 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.
- 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.
- If candlenuts are not available, you can substitute them with macadamia nuts. Or you can omit altogether.
Nutritional info in this recipe is only estimate using online calculator. You should refer to it as a guide only. Please verify with your own data if you seek an accurate info.