Otak-Otak (Spicy Fish Paste in Banana Leaves)

Singapore Otak; Kaffir lime leaves

While chatting with my mother the other day, I took the opportunity, as usual, to consult her on recipes from my childhood. Seeing as most of my favorite dishes always seem to involve one of the following equations, recalling the right combination for the appropriate dish is not too different from solving a tricky mathematical equation, involving a fair amount of trial and error:

Chili + Ginger + Shallots + lime = a chili dipping sauce to serve with noodles or chicken rice.

Chili + shallots + lemongrass + galangal = a chili base for curries and peanut sauce.

Chili + galangal + lemongrass + shallots + belacan = a spice base for classic Southeast Asian favorites like Otak-Otak.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. And mind-boggling.

Fresh lemongrass

Fortunately enough, a member of my extended maternal family had the brilliant idea to compile her mother’s traditional recipes in a nifty little soft cover, easily slipped into a shoulder bag. My mother’s cousin, Irene’s recipes were handed down from her mother, who incidentally, taught my late grandmother a whole host of recipes. Apart from revealing my complete ignorance of my extended family’s history, this humble tome the size of a Moleskine notebook is my lifesaver, featuring 152 pages of childhood favorites, all of which I completely took for granted while growing up.

With this guide in hand, all my mother needs to do now to fend off my incessant questions is to say “Have you checked Irene’s recipes yet?”.

Singapore Otak; Candlenuts

In the same way, Cheryl over at A Tiger In The Kitchen is doing her family a huge favor by compiling its traditions and stories in her memoir, released today. As a beneficiary of a similar endeavor, I am only too excited to see a fellow Singaporean capture her family’s food memories for posterity. Beneath all the publicity about our economic priorities, Singaporeans are, after all, a nation of gourmands at heart. No food, no growth.

To toast tradition, here’s a recipe for Otak-otak, a Singaporean classic of spicy fish paste wrapped in banana leaves. I remember playing spectator to my grandmother’s assured steps in the kitchen as she went about the tedious preparations for this dish. Patiently scraping mackerel flesh off the bone, trimming and deseeding each and every chili, peeling the shallots, squeezing coconut milk from freshly grated coconut, and transforming all the ingredients, one by one, in her trusty pestle and mortar. Having put in my share of elbow grease when making curry paste, I’m still in awe at the sheer strength my grandmother – and the women of her generation – invested in the kitchen to feed their families, despite the absence of modern kitchen appliances. We sure have it good today.

Otak-Otak (Spicy fish paste in Banana leaf) (based on the version in Irene’s Peranakan Recipes)
Serves four

While the original recipe mostly rings true to the version of my childhood, I realized that it omitted julienned strips of kaffir lime leaves – a must-add in my book for its aromatic contribution to the overall dish. Although mackerel is traditionally used, you could substitute any firm white-fleshed fish like halibut or cod, or make it a completely different dish by using shrimp. All ingredients listed below are available at Asian grocery stores, and banana leaves are usually sold in the freezer section. For convenience, you could skip the banana leaves altogether and bake the paste in a baking dish for 20 minutes at 450F.

1-inch piece of galangal, peeled and cubed (about 1 ounce/ 30 grams)
A 2-inch piece of fresh turmeric, peeled and cubed, or 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
2 stalks lemongrass, white part only, ends removed and leaves trimmed, sliced
8 candlenuts
3/4 ounce/ 20 grams dried chili, soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, deseeded and sliced
9 ounces/ 250 grams shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 ounce/ 12 grams belacan
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound/ 450 grams fish meat, deboned and minced
3/4 cup/ 150 ml coconut milk
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
4 kaffir lime leaves, julienned
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
Banana leaves, cut into 5 by 8-inch strips, rinsed under running water and patted completely dry
Toothpicks

1. Place the galangal, turmeric, lemongrass, candlenuts, chilis, shallots and belacan in a food processor and grind the ingredients until you get a thick, smooth paste.

2. In a large skillet over medium high heat, add 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil and the ground chili paste, stirring to incorporate the oil. After 5 minutes, add the coriander, sugar and salt and mix. Let the paste cook for another 8 to 10 minutes, until fragrant. Remove from the skillet and set aside to cool.

3. In a large bowl, stir together the fish, coconut and eggs. Add the kaffir lime strands and the chili paste, mixing well until each piece of fish is well-coated with the paste.

4. Preheat the oven to 450F.

5. Use the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil to brush the mid-section of each banana leaf, leaving a 2-inch border at the top and bottom.

6. Place 2 heaping tablespoonfuls of otak paste on the oiled banana leaf, leaving a 2-inch border at the top and bottom edges of the leaf, and a 1-inch border around the sides. Gently shape the paste into a small rectangle, and fold the side edges of the leaf over the paste. Secure the top and bottom edges with two toothpicks, weaving them in and out of the banana leaf. Repeat this step until all the paste has been prepared.

7. To cook the otak, place the banana leaf packets in a single layer on a lined baking sheet and bake in the top third of the oven, for 10 to 12 minutes or until fragrant. If you’re using a fire or a gas grill, place each packet directly on the grill and cook for about 15 minutes, turning them over after 6 minutes for even cooking.

8. Serve warm with rice or bread.

Otak spice base

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