Home / All Recipes / Indonesian / Pempek Adaan Saus Cuko - Chicken and Shrimp Balls Spicy Tamarind Sauce
Imagine a bowl of crispy golden brown deep-fried meatballs, cut into bite-size pieces, served with a savory-sweet and spicy tamarind sauce. If you are drooling from that description, then you will be very happy to create pempek at home.
Although fish is commonly the main ingredient in pempek, today I am sharing this recipe for pempek adaan using chicken and shrimp. You will also learn how to prepare saus cuko (spicy tamarind sauce) from scratch to serve with your homemade pempek. I will even give you tips to prepare an almost instant pempek with frozen packets of fish balls.
Pempek, Mpek-Mpek, or Empek-Empek, is Indonesian fish cakes considered as the signature dish of the city of Palembang in South Sumatra.
The main ingredients for Pempek fish cakes are fish, especially Spanish mackerel (Indonesian: ikan tenggiri), and tapioca flour. The fish paste can be boiled or fried, but they are always served with saus cuko (spicy tamarind sauce).
The story has it that Pempek is created around the 16th century by an old Chinese immigrant man who lives in the area around the Musi river in the city of Palembang. He uses the bountiful fish in the area and mixes it with tapioca and spices to create fish cakes, and sells them in his cart around the village. Apek is how people address an old Chinese man, and along the way, the dish itself is known as pempek/mpek-mpek/empek-empek.
My best translation for pempek adaan is anything pempek, or pempek without fish. In this recipe, we will use a combination of ground chicken and ground shrimp for the meatballs instead of fish.
Saus cuko, kuah cuko, or just cuko, is the spicy sauce to accompany a bowl of pempek. It has a sweet, spicy, and sour note from tamarind, garlic, bird-eye chili, and coconut palm sugar.
For a more deluxe version of saus cuko, you can add a tablespoon of dried tiny shrimps (Indonesian: ebi) and/or a tablespoon of Tianjin preserved vegetables (Chinese: 冬菜- dong cai).
Saus cuko is a very thin sauce, very similar to noodle broth. It is very common to serve pempek with boiled egg noodles, sliced cucumbers, and the spicy tamarind sauce.
To make saus cuko, simply boil water with minced garlic, thinly sliced bird-eye chilies, tamarind, and coconut palm sugar. Turn off the heat once all the sugar melts.
You can strain and serve the sauce immediately. I prefer to let the sauce steep while I prepare pempek to get an even better flavor for the sauce. I strain the sauce once I am ready to serve the pempek.
In a mixing bowl, combine ground chicken, ground shrimp, ground shallot, salt, sugar, eggs, and coconut milk into a uniform mixture.
Add tapioca flour and use a spatula to gently fold into the ground chicken and shrimp mixture until uniform.
TIPS: Sometimes, there is no need to add the whole 500 gram of tapioca flour to create the meatball mixture. I start with about 2⁄3 of the tapioca flour, then only add as much as needed until the mixture reaches a meatball-like mixture consistency.
Chill this mixture in the fridge while we heat a pot of oil for deep-frying. If you don’t wish to fry the meatballs on the same day, you can wrap the bowl with a plastic wrap and just rest it in the fridge overnight.
Optionally, you can shape and boil the meatball mixture in a pot of water at this point. You can freeze boiled meatballs in a freezer-safe ziplock bag for up to 3 months. When you want to enjoy some pempek, fry the frozen meatballs in hot oil without thawing.
Heat a pot of oil over medium heat until the oil is hot. Remove meatball mixture from the fridge, drop tablespoonfuls of meatball mixture gently into the hot oil and fry until golden brown.
Here are my tips for frying pempek:
1. Know when the oil is hot
If you have a thermometer, wait until the oil reaches 170 Celsius (340 Fahrenheit) before frying the meatballs.
If you don’t have a thermometer, try dropping a tiny meatball mixture into the oil. The oil is ready when the mixture floats to the surface instead of sinks to the bottom of the pot.
2. Use a cookie scoop
If you use a medium-size cookie scoop, you can use the scoop release trigger to drop the meatball mixture easily into the hot oil.
3. Fry in batches
Try to maintain the oil temperature during frying, don’t crowd the pot, and fry the meatballs in batches if necessary. For reference, fry seven meatballs per batch when using an 8-inch pot with three inches of oil.
4. Drain over a wire rack
Remove fried meatballs from the hot oil with a slotted spoon or a strainer ladle. Place them on a stainless steel strainer over a mixing bowl to drain off excess oil so they will remain crispy.
Cut fried meatballs into halves or quarters and place them in individual serving bowls. At its simplest, serve the fried meatballs with the spicy tamarind sauce. Only ladle the sauce over the fried meatballs right before serving so the meatballs remain crispy.
For a complete and more filling meal, try boiling some egg noodles, and cut a cucumber into thin slices. Serve the bowl of pempek with egg noodles and cucumber slices.
I know that fresh egg noodles can be a luxury item in the US. I have also tried serving pempek with vermicelli, rice noodles, and even instant ramen noodles. They all work great and these are all easier options than finding egg noodles.
You can make an almost instant pempek if your grocery store or Asian market sells frozen packets of fish cakes or fish balls.
If the fish cakes/fish balls are the boiled variety, boil them following the packet instruction, then fry in hot oil, or even a simple pan-frying to get a golden brown crispy surface. It may be possible to fry them without boiling, but please confirm with the packaging instruction.
If you are lucky enough to find fried fish cakes/fried fish balls, then you can simply cook them following the packet instruction.
Serve these fried fish cakes or fish balls with the spicy tamarind sauce and you get an almost instant pempek.