Ikan chuan chuan is a traditional Peranakan or Nyonya recipe that’s long been adopted by the Eurasian community. A classic example of a local recipe adapted by our various ethnic groups.
Ikan Chuan Chuan Recipe
The name first. So ikan means fish in Malay (and Indonesian). As far as chuan chuan is concerned, no one really seems to have a clue what it rally means. It’s obviously an old Peranakan colloquialism that seems to have been forgotten over time. If you know it, let me know!
You can head on over to this page to read more about the Nyonyas (aka Peranakans) and Eurasians.
Ikan chuan chuan is a dish of fried fish in a rich, earthy and piquant sauce. It’s a pretty easy recipe to cook and there are essentially 2 parts to it:
- we fry the fish (less than 10 minutes).
- make the sauce (5 minutes), then put it all together.
As you can see from the rough times above, despite having a couple of parts, it doesn’t take long at all. And if you’re not a fan of frying the fish, you can also bake it or use the air fryer, whatever works best for you.
Traditionally, the fish used in ikan chuan chuan is pomfret. With its subtle, delicate and a touch sweet flavour, it’s perfect to fully take on the robust flavour of this Peranakan dish.
However, feel free to use whatever white fish you can find. I can’t get pomfret easily here, so my white fish of choice for many Asian dishes tends to be sea bream, which has a similar texture and flavour to pomfret.
Having said that, I’ve also used salmon to cook ikan chuan chuan on many occasion, and the final flavour was simply phenomenal!
If you are not keen on whole fish, you can also use fillets. To make this a little fancier, you could coat the fillets in breadcrumbs before frying them. Just bear in mind that those breadcrumbs will soak up the sauce very quickly once served.
When my mum used to cook ikan chuan chuan, she would use breaded fish fingers, which were just perfect. Before my kids went vegetarian, I used to do that on long days too, because not only was it easy, it was yummy!
The Sauce Ingredients
That piquant sauce I mentioned? It’s made up of a combination of salted soy beans, tamarind (or vinegar), dark soy sauce and water. With salt and pepper, naturally. Let’s take a look.
Taucheo (Salted Soy Beans)
If you receive my weekly newsletter, you’ll know that this is in my top 3 South East Asian ingredients list. You can read more about taucheo here.
These salted soy beans forms the basis of our sauce, adding an earthy depth. This flavour is non negotiable in ikan chuan chuan.
However, if you can’t get taucheo, a great substitute will be red miso paste (or even the lighter kind). Head on over to the article on taucheo to find out what else you can use instead.
We mash our salted soybeans up with a fork before using it in the recipe.
Dark Soy Sauce
This is not the generic soy sauce called for in most recipes. This is the slightly darker version, and these days, should be found just as easily as light soy sauce and kicap manis.
Dark soy sauce is brewed slightly longer than light soy sauce, has a touch of molasses but isn’t really sweet, like kicap manis (sweet soy sauce).
If you really, really can’t find it, tamari makes an acceptable substitute, although it’s saltier.
If you cook Asian food, you’ll know tamarind. If not, you can read more here.
Tamarind is what adds tang to this dish. If you can’t get tamarind, use the humble clear vinegar, or Chinese rice vinegar (not wine). These are the best substitutes, not lime or lemon juice.
In fact, some families use vinegar in this recipe, instead of tamarind.
Aromatics and Vegetables
We’ve got the usual suspects here: onion, garlic, ginger and chillies, along with a tomato and fresh coriander leaves (cilantro) to finish.
I use quite a lot of onions, as I love the sauce in ikan chuan chuan to be made up of onions too. If you’re not a massive fan, feel free to use half the amount.
Difference between Nyonya and Eurasian Ikan Chuan Chuan
There is a noticeable difference in the recipe. The Eurasians’ ikan chuan chuan tends to be a little on the spicy side, with the addition of ground fresh or dried chillies. Sometimes, you’ll also find shrimp paste (belacan) and candlenuts (buah keras) being used in the paste.
This gives a slightly richer sauce, and is absolutely delicious in its own right.
I have a recipe for a red chilli paste on LinsFood that would be perfect in ikan chuan chuan to make it more Eurasian in flavour.
The Malays also have a somewhat similar dish based on the sweet and sour concept, called Ikan Masak Tiga Rasa (fish cooked with three flavours. So that’s hot, sweet and sour.
How to Serve Ikan Chuan Chuan
It’s a rustic family dish, and just perfect with some plain white rice to fully appreciate the rich, piquant flavours. And a Nyonya meal is never complete without the presence of sambal belacan!
You can have it as part of a South East Asian meal, with a local vegetable dish or two. You’ll find some suggestions below.
And now, shall we get cooking?
If you enjoy the recipe, drop me a comment and let me know. And if you are feeling like a star, don’t forget that 5-star rating!
If you make this recipe, post it on Instagram and tag me @azlinbloor and hashtag it #linsfood.
Ikan Chuan Chuan (a Peranakan Recipe)
- chopping board
- wok or deep frying pan (skillet)
- large plate
- small bowl for the tamarind if using pulp
- 2 whole white fish (or 4 fillets) (traditionally, pomfret, I'm using sea bream)
- 1 pinch salt
- 250 ml vegetable oil for frying the fish
- 2 Tbsp taucheo
- 1 tsp dark soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp tamarind pulp + 4 Tbsp hot water or 2 Tbsp shop bought paste
- 400 ml water
- ground white pepper
Aromatics and Vegetables
- 1 large onion (pre peeled weight about 200g/7 0z)
- 2 medium cloves garlic
- 2 fresh red chillies
- 5 cm thick piece of ginger
- 1 medium tomato (or 4 cherry tomatoes)
- 3 sprigs fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
- Place your tamarind pulp in the bowl and pour the hot water over it. Leave to soak while you get the other ingredients ready and fry the fish.
- Halve, then slice the onion thinly.Chop the garlic widthwise.Halve the chillies, lose the seeds and membrane, and slice in thin, long strips.Slice the garlic in thin, long strips too.
- Mash the taucheo up roughly with a fork.
- Quarter the tomatoes. If using cherry tomatoes, make a small cut on each one to allow them to soak up the sauce later.
Fry the Fish
- Clean and dry the fish, and make 2-3 shallow diagonal slashes across the body, to allow the fish to cook quicker and the flesh to absorb the sauce later. I forgot to do it, as you can see!
- Heat the oil over medium-high heat and fry the fish for 6 minutes, turning over halfway. If your wok isn't big enough, do 1 fish at a time. When done, take the fish out and place on the plate lined with kitchen paper, to absorb excess oil.
Air Frying the Fish
- Preheat your air fryer to 200°C/400°F for 5 minutes. Place your fish and air fry for 15 – 17 minutes until the fish is cooked through.
Cooking Ikan Chuan Chuan
- Pour out all but about 1 Tbsp of the oil in the wok and heat on medium heat. Fry the onions for 1 minute.
- Add the garlic, chillies and ginger and fry for 30 seconds.
- Add the mashed taucheo and cook for a minute.
- Remember the soaking tamarind? Mash it up well with your fingers (should be cool by now). Fish out the seeds and large bits of pulp and discard, and pour everything else into the wok, along with the water. Stir to mix.Lower the heat right down and simmer the sauce for 3 minutes.
- Now add the fried fish and tomatoes to the sauce. Baste the fish by scooping sauce all over it. Cook for 2 more minutes to allow the fish to heat right through.
- Finish off with some ground white pepper and serve with whole coriander leaves scattered over.