The Secret to Asian cuisines: Anchovies

Having a good soup base is very important, as it can be used in almost every dish and enhances the flavour of the dish greatly. In Asian countries, anchovies are the main heroes behind the strong aroma of the mouthwatering cuisines. 

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Image credit: Malaysia.com

Known as ikan bilis in Malaysia from the Malay language(ikan is translated to fish in Malay), anchovies are mostly used in soups as the soup base or deep fried as a side dish that is used in Malay and Chinese cuisines that are based in South East Asia. These would be dried under the sun, with their intestines and heads removed before being used in the cooking process.

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Deep-fried anchovies, paired with nuts is a common side dish in Malaysia. Image credits: Dishmaps

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The Chinese cuisine Pan Mee or Meehoonkuek 面粉粿/板面 with fried mince, deep fried anchovies, dried mushrooms and katuk. Image credits: Rasa Malaysia

Malay cuisines also use a fermented type of anchovy that is mixed together with sambal(a traditional spicy Malay paste that is made from shrimp paste, fish sauce, spicy chilli peppers, shallots, vinegar and other secondary ingredients) which is mostly used in the famous Malaysian cuisine nasi lemak(rice cooked with coconut milk, often paired with a boiled egg, deep fried fish or fried chicken with one’s choice and a generous helping of the sambal paste).

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Nasi lemak with deep fried anchovies, fresh cucumber slices, nuts, deep fried fish, half a boiled egg and sambal on top. Image credits: Pinterest

In Korea, anchovies are either fermented as a side dish or used as a soup base with the accompanion of kelp. The fermented side dish which is known as myeolchi-bokkeum is often eaten on its own or one could pair it with rice. The anchovies are more widely used in Korea in comparision to China and Japan, which mostly use anchovies as a soup base only.

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Myeolchi-bokkeum that is pan-fried with sesame oil, green chilli peppers, sesame seeds. Image credit: Maangchi

The soup base that is cooked from anchovies is extremely clear without the pungent fishy smell that one gets from the dried anchovies. It is mildly sweet, so light that you couldn’t really taste anything on its own but it highly enhances the flavour of other ingerdients that were added to the stew or soup. The Korean soup base is more strong-flavoured in contrast to the other versions of soup base with a thicker colour.

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The Korean style anchovy soup base. Image credit: Korean Bapsang

You can buy these anchovies in packets at any Asia Markets in Europe but with a hefty price due to these dried anchovies being imported from Asia countries as they have a huge difference with the types of anchovies one finds in Europe. If you are eager to try out an Asian dish, or just craving for some noodles, do throw in some anchovies beforehand into the pot, which I can assure that you will not be disappointed.

Here are some links that show some really good recipes at making anchovy soup bases:

Ps: I am yearning for a bowl of noodles right now literally, after a long hour of typing and searching through the net for decent pictures. Why am I torturing myself though?

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