Otak otak is a dish of fish cake that is grilled or steamed in banana leaves, originating from Indonesia. It is a widely popular dish in Southeast Asia, especially during barbeque parties or events where a grilling pit is available to cook it as it is easy to cook through, readily available from wholesale centers and supermarkets, and an easily digestible, bite-sized snack to have while chatting with friends and family members.
I must confess though, that I do not really like eating the skinny, long otak sticks that are commonly available commercially and in the hawker centres because they have a very strong spicey taste and are almost meatless – by this I mean a lot of it is paste with very little fish meat visible. I personally prefer those that are sold in plastic containers and frozen in the supermarkets, as they are usually thicker, meatier and tastier as well. When I do buy them, I will buy a few packs at a time and freeze them at home so that I can have them for meals as and when I would like to.
I’ve never thought of doing otak otak myself because it’s quite a lot of effort, and I need to make sure my blender is working well so that the spices can form into a nice smooth paste (thank goodness it is working well enough!) And since I’m making this once in a blue moon, I will make the version that I like – fat, thick, meaty, flavourful – a version that is simply yummy all the way through!
- Banana leaves: a bundle
- Lemongrass: 3 stalks, roots removed
- Ginger: 5cm knob, sliced
- Belacan (shrimp paste): 6cm piece, sliced
- Galangal: 6cm knob, sliced
- Red chilli: 10, deseeded & sliced
- White peppercorn: 25
- Onion: 1, sliced,
- Candlenut: 8
- Garlic: 10 cloves
- Cooked rice: 4 tbsp
- Sugar: 2 tbsp
- Snapper fish fillets (or threadfin / mackerel): 1.5kg, sliced into 2.5cm pieces
- Coconut milk: 300ml
- Oil: 3 tbsp
- Egg: 4, beaten
- Toothpicks: for securing leaves
- Cut banana leaves into 16 pieces, each 20cm x 20cm and 16 smaller pieces of 10cm x 10cm.
- Wash and wipe dry, and hold over gas burner for a few seconds to soften. Set aside.
- Blend together lemongrass, ginger, belacan, galangal, red chilli, white peppercorn, onion, candlenuts, garlic, cooked rice and sugar. Blend till a smooth paste forms.
- Blend in half of fish fillets and half of coconut milk.
- Stir in remaining fish fillets, coconut milk, oil and eggs.
- Place 1 small banana leaf onto 1 big banana leaf. Scoop fish paste onto centre of small leaf. Fold in sides of leaf, and secure top and bottom with toothpicks. Repeat for remaining leaves.
- Steam 15 min and serve with rice. You can also grill it for 5min on each side till the leaves are browned.
There are, as with many other recipes and dishes, many different versions of the same dish, due to these recipes getting adapted and revised according to the different cultures and habitual tastes. My version here leans towards the Penang version, which is thicker, creamier and, I feel, milder in the spice aspect.
As you can observe from the post images, I have made both the grilled (left) and steamed (right) versions in this attempt. You can try out both if you are undecided!
I prefer to grill the otak otaks than to steam them as the grilling helps to give a slightly more authentic flavour (think charred, burnt, barbequed) and takes it a step closer to what we usually get from the outdoor grills such as those at the local Satay Clubs.
16 large pieces of otak