Asam Prawns – Famous Malaysian Cuisine

Assam prawns, or tamarind fried prawns, is one of the simplest dishes to make in the vast Malaysian menu. Yet fans of this sweet-and-sour seafood dish declare it the country’s best!

Known as “assam hae” in Hokkien, this Nyonya dish draws from both Chinese and Malay influences. It was created by descendants of early Chinese migrants who settled in Malaysia, adapting their traditional techniques to incorporate local ingredients. The Nyonya pantry is packed with tamarind, lemongrass, galangal (Thai ginger), turmeric, coconut milk and chillies, often blended with shrimp paste or fish sauce to create flavourful dishes.

With assam prawns, the hero is fresh prawns, often with shells and heads intact, marinated in tamarind pulp, salt, sugar and dark soy sauce. (Don’t worry – some vendors do shell and devein the prawns before cooking. If you’re squeamish, ask before you order!) The prawns are wok-fried at high heat, with the marinade caramelising and intensifying the rich, tangy flavour.

To eat this dish like a local, munch the prawns shells and all, breaking off the heads to suck out the juices before discarding, and throwing away the tail shell – it’s too spiky to swallow. Sambal belacan or chilli paste are often served on the side for added spice heat.

Assam prawns is especially popular in Penang Island and mainland, where it’s served in Nyonya restaurants, roadside stalls and hawker centres. Order the dish as part of a larger Nyonya meal, alongside ayam masak merah (spicy red chicken) or beef rendang (slow-cooked beef stew). Eat them with plain steamed white rice or kuey teow noodles – the perfect accompaniments to soak up all those delicious sauces!

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Little Heritage
23 Jalan 17/56 Seksyen 17, 46400 Petaling Jaya

Famous Malaysian cuisine is a 50-video series produced by Masters of Malaysian cuisine(MOMC) in partnership with Tourism Malaysia.

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