Pamper taste buds with Peranakan seafood treat rich in herbs and spices
OTAK-otak is a fish dish popular in South-East Asia, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
It is believed to have originated in Palembang, Indonesia, where fish mixed with herbs and spices is grilled wrapped in banana leaf.
It evolved a bit when it crossed over to Malaysia where it is either steamed in banana leaf or grilled in palm leaves.
In Palembang, otak-otak is light in colour and closely resembles brains to which it owes its name.
Regional evolution has also resulted in the reddish orange variations because of the addition of chillies and turmeric.
Otak-otak is made with fish – either sliced, mashed or in the form of a paste – and sometimes prawns or other seafood.
This otak-otak recipe is the steamed version from The Star’s Flavours Nyonya cookbook that features Penang Peranakan dishes.
It makes eight parcels with generous amounts of fish and custard, or more if you spread out the fish and custard.
Traditionally, white fish such as tenggiri or mackerel is preferred but it is also common for red snapper, grouper, kurau or threadfin and even tongkol or skipjack tuna to be used in otak-otak.
Wilt the banana leaf before use or it will split and tear as you fold them. I prefer to toast the leaves over an open flame such as the gas stove top, or it will be ideal if you happen to have a live charcoal fire burning.
You may also scald them by pouring boiling water over them, or spread them on a rack and steam for about two minutes.
The process of folding the leaves is a bit hard to explain, so watch the video for a clearer idea of how to construct the pyramid-shaped parcels.
It is almost like doing origami and is quite easy once you get the hang of it.
You may serve it warm with rice, or cold in a sandwich with slices of ripe tomatoes and crunchy cucumber.
500g fillet red snapper/other white fish
24 daun kaduk (wild betel leaves)
1 sheet banana leaf
250ml coconut milk
2 tbsp rice flour
4 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp salt to taste
1 tbsp sugar to taste
10 bulbs shallots
2 cloves garlic
5 fresh red chillies
8 dried chillies (soaked in 1 cup hot water)
20g fresh turmeric
2 stalks lemongrass
20g belacan, toasted
Wipe the banana leaf with a wet towel to clean it of any dirt, then cut the leaf into eight 18x20cm rectangles.
Toast the rectangles over an open flame until wilted, or steam or scald with hot water to soften them.
Grind all the spice paste ingredients in an electric mill with ¼ cup of the chilli water until finely blended.
Combine the custard ingredients in a mixing bowl, then stir in the spice paste until well mixed.
Cut the fish into about half-a-centimetre thick slices and divide equally into eight portions.
To assemble the parcels, lay a piece of wilted banana leaf on a flat surface and arrange three kaduk leaves in the centre.
Place one portion of fish on top of the kaduk leaves and pour in about one-quarter to one-third cup of custard mixture.
Then quickly, before the custard flows out of the banana leaf, lift up the short edges of the leaf and hold them together with one hand over the centre of the custard.
Immediately spread out one long edge of the leaf into a triangle with the free hand, bring the flaps to meet in the centre and hold them together. Tilting the leaf a little to keep the custard from flowing out, repeat with the remaining long edge, then secure with a toothpick.
This should result in eight pyramid-shaped parcels.
Steam the parcels over boiling water for 10 minutes until the fish is cooked and the custard sets.
Serve with rice or bread.