Assam Prawns

1/14/2019 08:27:00 AM

Assam prawns. This is a totally simple, but incredibly delicious Malaysian dish. It's literally two ingredients - prawns and tamarind paste - stir-fried. The succulent prawns get caramelized and charred and crisp in the wok, and are addictively salty and sour. A total treat of a dish! Serve it with other dishes and rice as part of a meal, or just make one huge batch and Go To Town.

Assam Prawns

I don't do a lot of Malaysian cooking - mainly this is because I can't compete with my Mum and Dad! However, lately I've been trying to learn their special dishes. We've done a couple of fun cooking weekends with them, where they teach us our favourites. On the most recent one, my Mum taught me loh bak (deep-fried pork belly rolls), and Dad taught Sandra how to make his kiam chye th'ng (salted vegetable and duck soup). That time, Sandra also figured out how to make Mum's egg curry! Basically, while the soup was simmering and Mum and I were rolling the loh bak, Sandra followed the egg curry recipe from one of Mum's battered old Malaysian cookbooks and it turned out great! (Mum initially got the recipe from that book, but of course she's made it so many times over the years that she doesn't use the recipe any more).

However in the normal run of things, me learning about Malaysian cooking involves me interrogating my parents when I go over for dinner each week and hurriedly typing notes into my phone. 

These assam prawns are a Dad special. He makes these reasonably often, and when he explained the recipe to me last month, I couldn't believe how simple they were! You literally just marinate prawns in some jarred tamarind paste and then stir fry in hot oil. That's IT. Definitely one that's achievable at home.

I had my parents over for dinner the other week, and I thought it'd be the perfect opportunity to give these prawns a whirl. I decided to splash out on these gigantic prawns I saw at the market. Nine huge prawns were almost a whole kilogram, and cost just under fifty dollars - eep! (Smaller prawns are totally doable as well, just pick the ones you like).

So as I've said the actual recipe is extremely simple, but I thought it would be helpful to show pictures of the prawn-preparation-process. I like to keep the shell on, but remove the digestive tract. 


Pick up the prawn, and you'll see between the head and the body there's a little gap in the shell. (You can see the dark vein running along the length of the back of the prawn). Starting at that gap, use a pair of kitchen scissors to cut through the shell along the vein until the tail.

Where to start cutting

You stop cutting at the last section of the tail (which is where my thumb and forefinger are in the below photo).

Where to cut

Then, you have to pull the vein out. I think the easiest way is to gently prise apart the shells with your fingers, and use a skewer to gently tug the vein out. Then grab the vein and firmly but gently pull it out and discard it. (I say do it gently because it's easiest / best if you get it all out in one piece).

Removing the vein

Repeat for all the prawns and you're done! Then it's just a matter of covering the prawns in tamarind paste (for this step I recommend kitchen gloves), and letting them marinate in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Marinating prawns

Stir fry the prawns in a hot wok, until cooked through and charred. That's it! You literally don't even need to season these - no salt, no pepper, no nothing. Just the prawns and the tamarind. (I put some lime wedges in the bowl for garnish, but you don't really need them). The prawns are incredibly flavourful!

Assam Prawns

I served these with rice and a fish curry (the "So Easy Fish Curry" from Jamie Oliver's excellent new book, 5 Ingredients), which made a great meal! Although now that I think about it, a huge batch of these prawns, just by themselves, would make a pretty amazing summer dinner. Especially with a crisp white wine on the side.

Assam Prawns

This is a messy dish. You gotta use your hands and get stuck in! For true Malaysian-ness, suck the goodness out of the prawn head. My family seems to have a system - I peel my own prawns, eat the meat, and give Dad the prawn heads; my mum will maybe peel one or two prawns before starting to feel lazy; my dad is a prawn peeling expert, and will always peel prawns for himself and for his wife.


Assam Prawns
A recipe by Sarah Cooks and her Dad

9 extra large prawns, shell-on (including head)
2-3 heaped tablespoons tamarind paste (from a jar)
Vegetable oil, for frying

Prepare the prawns. Using a pair of kitchen scissors, cut through the shell, along the centre line of the back of the prawn, from below the head to the start of the tail. (Where the backbone would be if prawns were vertebrates). Gently prise the sides apart, then use a skewer to gently ease out the dark vein. Gently tug on the vein to pull it out (ideally in one go so you don't get vein gunk everywhere). Repeat for all the prawns. Snip off any extra-long whiskers.
Place the prawns in a large bowl and add the tamarind paste. Stir to coat the prawns evenly in the tamarind. (I'd suggest wearing food gloves and using your hands). Cover with clingfilm and marinate in the fridge for 1-2 hours.
When you are ready to eat, heat 1-cm of oil in a large wok. Cook the prawns in batches, for a few minutes on each side, or until the prawns are cooked through, the tamarind is dark and caramelised and the shells are bright red underneath. Transfer to a serving plate.
Makes 9 extra large prawns

Have you made this recipe? Leave a comment below! Tag me on Instagram @sarahcooksblog and hashtag #sarahcooksblog

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  1. Replies
    1. Haha yes! Almost like little lobsters!

  2. I love getting messy dishes like these! My mother didn't want to share her recipes with me for ages but now does. Were your parents ever reluctant to share?

    1. My parents are always more than happy to share their recipes with me, which is lucky! (But my mum's not super keen about me sharing her recipes on the blog).

      Years ago, my dad used to say: "If they want the recipe, just invite your internet friends over and I'll cook for them..." lol



My email address is sarahcooks [at] hotmail [dot] com.