Pinarasakan (Malaysian Braised Fish With Sour Fruit)

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Overehead view of Pinarasakan
Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Pinarasakan—also known as pinarasak, pinasakan, or parasakan—is a well-known cooking technique within the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun community of Sabah, Malaysia. Before refrigeration, the Kadazan-Dusun community found that cooking fish with a generous amount of salt and sour fruit until it began to dry out both improved its flavor, and more importantly, extended its shelf life. Eventually, this cooking method became known as pinarasakan. Pinarasakan can be made with either freshwater or saltwater fish, though oily fish such as mackerel is recommended for this preparation so the flesh does not dry out too quickly while cooking.

Pinarasakan requires the use of a souring agent for both flavor and preservation, usually a kind of fruit, which varies depending on location and availability. In the Penampang district of Sabah, it is customary to use the dried skins of takob-akob (Garcinia parvifolia), a tart, cherry-sized fruit. In other parts of Sabah, locals may use bambangan (a wild mango endemic to Borneo that is also known as mangifera pajang), belimbing buluh (Averrhoa bilimbi, a small green fruit that looks like finger lime), unripe mango, tamarind pulp, asam keping (Garcinia atroviridis, a sour fruit that looks like a cross between an apple and a persimmon), calamansi, or lime juice.

The aromatics typically used are fresh turmeric, ginger, and bird’s eye chiles, though other ingredients such as lemongrass, garlic, shallot, and turmeric leaf may be added for scent and flavor as well. Ideally, the fish should be salty, sour, and spicy, and fragrant with turmeric and ginger. Of course, “perfection” is in the eye—er, mouth—of the eater. Some prefer the flavor to sway more in one particular direction or other; what’s most important is that all those different flavors are noticeably present. Many enjoy the dish when it’s more sour, as the tang complements the texture of the oily fish. Despite the lengthy simmering time, the fish remains slightly firm. 

Overhead view of adding fish to pan
Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

The dish most commonly prepared using this cooking technique is known as pinarasakan sada bosungan in Kadazan-Dusun. ”Sada” refers to “fish,” while ”bosungan” is the local name for scad, an oily, mackerel-like fish. Pinarasakan sada bosungan is best eaten with steamed white rice or a traditional wrapped rice known as linopot takano. It’s also eaten as “pusas” or drinking snacks, and is usually enjoyed during gatherings with family and close friends.

The recipe below is a typical preparation of pinarasakan sada bosungan. With minimal ingredients for maximal flavor, it’s easily whipped up for a meal in a typical Malaysian kitchen. Spoon the gravy over rice and serve with braised leafy greens like cassava shoots to ground the tanginess of the soup.

In a 12-inch nonstick pan or claypot set over medium heat, add turmeric, ginger, chopped bird’s eye chiles, and salt. (Pan should be large enough to accommodate the fish without overcrowding.) Add the tamarind and water, then stir until the salt dissolves, about 1 minute.

Overhead view of stir-frying ingredients
Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Add the fish to the pan, arranging them in a single layer (do not stack the fish on top of each other). Bring to a simmer, then cover the pan and reduce heat to low. Cook the fish, undisturbed, until most of the water has cooked off and a concentrated gravy remains, about 45 minutes. Uncover the pan for the last 15 minutes so that the gravy almost dries out. Turn off the heat and leave the fish in the covered pan until ready to serve. This will help prevent the fish from drying out too much and sticking to the pan.

Four image collage of cooking fish in pan
Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Transfer fish to a plate and serve family-style alongside steamed white rice.

Overhead view of Pinarasaka on a plate
Serious Eats / Michelle Yip

Special Equipment

12-inch nonstick pan with lid

Notes

Any small, oily fish can be used to make pinarasakan. If using larger fish, bone-in steaks are much more preferable over fillets.

If the gravy is runny after 45 minutes, remove the fish to a platter and heat the sauce over high heat until thickened, about 2 minutes.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Pinarasakan can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.


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