An Ambonese Culinary Adventure

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Ambon is one of the Maluku islands of Indonesia, known the world over as the Spice Islands. For centuries, cloves grew exclusively in these islands, attracting both traders and would-be conquerors. Since the 16th century, Ambon has been colonized by other Indonesian island nations, the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Ambon has been inhabited for at least 40,000 years. About 4,500 years ago, seafaring settlers brought farming and their language as they mixed with the local population. The current Ambonese people are considered a creole ethnic group, with origins dating to the 16th century, consisting of the descendants of these ancient inhabitants who in turned mix with immigrants from other Indonesian islands and European traders. They speak a creole language based on Malay but with strong influences from Portuguese and Dutch.

The Ambonese diet is based on seafood - mostly tuna - and on sago, a starch extracted from the center of sago palms. It's a calorie rich food that can cooked into pancakes, porridges and puddings and can be used similarly to tapioca or cassava. Given the abundance of sago in Ambon, the Ambonese never learned to cultivate rice and even today it's imported from elsewhere. They also eat a few vegetables.

Sri Owen, the great propagandist of Indonesian cuisine and the author of the cookbook I used, said he was underwhelmed by the gastronomic choices in Ambon and the other spice islands. He got the recipe I made from the chef of the hotel where he stayed:

Ikan Asam Pedis

Hot and Sour Fish

Hot and Sour Fish

I normally love Indonesian food, but this dish was a complete disappointment. Despite the abundant use of spices, the dish was virtually flavorless. The sauce is supposed to be quite soupy, and I actually added less water than a doubling of the recipe would have indicated, but it still resulted in a pretty insipid sauce. I'm sure it would be much better if coconut milk was used instead of water, and maybe if some palm sugar was added, but then it would result in a completely different dish.

The Ambonese usually use tuna for this dish, but any firm white fish should do. I used rockfish as it's cheaper and the supermarket claimed it was fresh.

This dish did introduce me to a completely new to me ingredient: calamansi juice. I've written more about them in my blog, but the original recipe suggested they were an essential ingredient for this dish to taste correctly. That might have been true if the dish actually tasted of anything at all.

Ambonese Hot and Sour Fish


    For the spice paste

  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 6 small shallots, peeled & quartered
  • 3 red Thai chilies, seeded and trimmed
  • 1" ginger root, peeled
  • 1" fresh turmeric, peeled
  • 1/2" x 1/2" galangal root, peeled
  • 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup water

    For the fish

  • 2 lb fish
  • 2 tsp lime or lemon juice
  • salt to taste
  • 1 lemongrass, cut into thirds & bruised
  • 2 kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tomatoes, sliced
  • a bunch of Thai basil or mint leaves, shredded
  • 1/4 cup calamansi juice


Put all the ingredients for the spice paste in an electric grinder or blender and grind until you get a paste.

Pat dry the fish fillets. Cut into cubes. Rub with the lime juice and salt. Set aside.

Heat a frying pan over medium heat and add the spice paste. Cook, stirring frequently, until the water evaporates. Add the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and continue cooking until fragrant. Add the water and salt to taste, bring to a boil, then bring hit to low and simmer for 15 minutes.

Bring the heat back up to medium. Add the fish, lower the heat to low and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, basil and calamansi juice. Simmer for 2 more minutes or until the fish is cooked through. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Adapted from a recipe in Sri Owen's Indonesian Regional Food & Cookery

See also Balinese, Indonesian, Jakarta, Javanese recipes.