By Kurniawati Kamarudin
GERIK (Bernama) — What goes well with a plate of steaming hot rice?
Quite a number of Malaysians would probably answer “ikan pekasam”. The pekasam is a fermented fish that is prepared by marinating the fish in salt, ‘asam keping’ (garcinia fruit) or tamarind, brown sugar and roasted rice.
One of the best freshwater fish to make into pekasam is the “kelah” (mahseer).
When fried with onions and chili to a nice crisp, the tangy meat bursts with flavour. The crisped scales of the kelah are also a delight to eat.
“Kelah pekasam” is considered a rare product in the market not only because it is expensive, but also because the kelah is difficult to source.
However, this delicacy is often served in Gerik during meals and is much enjoyed despite its cost.
KELAH FROM PULAU BANDING
Processing freshwater fish into pekasam has become an industry commercialised by the villagers in Gerik.
Mohd Isa Mohamed Ramli, who has been producing pekasam for the past five years, is among the entrepreneurs who have successfully expanded their business nationwide.
No less than 200kg of freshwater fish go through the fermentation process each week, including the kelah.
The freshwater fish is sourced directly from the Orang Asli in Pulau Banding each week. However, the supply of kelah is only available during specific times.
“The kelah is easier to find during high tide. It is usually used to make pekasam. We use Grade C fish which is quite small in size,” said Mohd Isa, who is also known as Tok Janggut.
He would buy at least 20kg of kelah each time the supply arrives, at RM70 per kg.
The amount can yield about 40 jars of kelah pekasam, which is then sold to customers for RM50 per 500g container.
Mohd Isa is the only kelah pekasam entrepreneur in Gerik. He said unlike other fermented freshwater fish, the scales of kelah need not be removed before it is processed into pekasam. Some even consider the scales to be the best part of kelah pekasam.
However, due to the steep price of kelah, not many people dare to venture into the production of kelah pekasam, he said.
“They’d be at risk of a loss if they can’t sell their stock, because the fish costs more than other freshwater species.
“As for me, the reason I dare venture into this is because I have an established customer base, particularly from Facebook friends across the country. My customers don’t mind the price because they want pekasam made from the best freshwater fish,” said Mohd Isa whose products carry the name Ikan Pekasam Tok Janggut.
Besides online sales, he also sells his products at a stall set up in front of his home in Kampung Padang Stang, here.
Before the advent of refrigerators, fermenting is one of the traditional ways of preserving fish as it is a food item that easily spoils.
Pekasam used to be very popular only in the northern and east coast states of the peninsula, but has come to be as popular throughout the nation after its commercialisation.
Among the freshwater fish often made into pekasam are the Javanese carps, barb, marble goby, perch, giant goramy, snakehead, snakeskin goramy, tilapia and featherback.
The process of fermenting the fish is quite simple. The fish is cleaned and degutted before it is mixed with salt and left to ferment for two days.
The fish is then washed again and mixed with broken roasted rice. Tamarind and brown sugar is mixed in to give the pekasam a brownish colour. It is then stored inside an airtight container.
However, Mohd Isa had his own recipe of making his products last longer and keeping the fish in one piece.
His pekasam was also distinct from others in the market, as it was coated with white rice, instead of the usual brown.
“I do not use the regular plastic packaging. Instead, I sell mine in the small plastic jars typically used to store “kuih raya”.
“This makes it easier to deliver via postal services, particularly for those who order online,” he said.
Mohd Isa believes that what was most important was keeping his customers satisfied.
Besides the kelah, other pekasam fish are sold between RM10 and RM30 a jar.
The fermentation process is carried out three times a week after the supply of fish arrives. Once the fish is cleaned, it is cured with salt overnight.
The pekasam is ready for frying and consumption after 10 days of fermentation.
“It is important to keep the process hygienic. The flies will come if you do it during the day and that will spoil the fermentation process.
“To create a tasty pekasam, fresh fish must be used. Using fresh fish also helps keep the pekasam in one piece when it is fried,” he revealed.
PEKASAM AT CASTELLA CAFE
Those wishing to enjoy a meal with Tok Janggut’s pekasam can head over to the Castella Cafe in Sungai Beruk, Kampung Kerunai.
The cafe Mohd Isa opened three years ago serves an assortment of pekasam. The pekasam kelah is a signature dish at the cafe, which menu is the traditional food of the Hulu Perak Pattani Malay community.
Mohd Isa, who is of Pattani-Malay descent, felt compelled to introduce and promote the traditional dishes of his people, especially to those from outside of Gerik.
“Almost 80 per cent of the people in Gerik are of Pattani-Malay descent and their food is unique. If we don’t commercialise it, only the people in Gerik will know about it,” he said, adding that he hoped to expand his business to Sabah and Sarawak too.
Besides fried pekasam, the cafe also cooks up rice in bamboo, kelah in coconut milk gravy, baung fish cooked in gravy with bamboo shoots and palm pith curry, among others.
All dishes served at the cafe are presented to customers in bamboo branch.–BERNAMA