Penang Nyonya Otak-Otak (Spicy Fish Custard Parcels)
Posted September 16, 2012on:
On my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur, I was searching for a night market snack which I hadn’t had since I left the country ten years ago – something we call otak-otak. When translated, the name of this exceptional delicacy literally reads, “brain-brain.” If you are taken aback somewhat by the name, don’t. Despite the name, there’s no brains in otak-otak. Instead, the kind that I grew up with – Muar style otak-otak – comprises a thin rectangular strip of fish paste, wrapped neatly with coconut leaves, and finally grilled to perfection. When unwrapped, the red hued-paste was unusually tender and nicely spiced, redolent of dried seafood flavours.
Reading the book, “Nonya Flavours” exposed me to a plethora of Peranakan dishes, which I was not as familiar with; one of the items that caught my attention was otak-otak. This version, was to my surprise, in a form of a banana leaf parcel and secured by a toothpick. More importantly, the fish used was sliced in small pieces and mixed with a spiced custard, before being steamed. The outcome was notably more delicate in texture but smelled pungently fragrant due to the inclusion of daun kaduk (Piper sarmentosum, also known as wild betel leaves or lá lốt in Vietnamese). It was not the easiest thing to make, especially the spice paste, as I own a mortar and pestle. I remembered spending all afternoon on that, as well as wrapping those little parcels while ensuring my leaves were not torn.
However, I could not imagine making this any way else. I find that mortar and pestle has a strange way of connecting us to the food we are prepping. I saw how my spice paste was slowly transformed in a matter of minutes. I also realised the amount of effort and patience that went into making this otak-otak. In Malaysia, a small piece of Muar style otak-otak would sell for a mere RM0.50 – RM0.80 (approximately $0.25) despite the amount of labour; Penang Nyonya-style would run much higher. What’s impressive is not only the price. It’s that people are still making it by hand and they make them well, something which probably many Malaysians take for granted sometimes. For an overseas Malaysian like me, we don’t have the privilege to buy these otak-otak from the markets and making them by hand is quite humbling in many ways. I am sure a proper nyonya would be proud to see this.
- 250 ml thick coconut milk
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 tbsp (heaped) rice flour
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, fine julienne
- 1 tsp white pepper
- 1 tbsp sugar, or taste
- 1 tsp salt, or to taste
Spice paste (grind with mortar & pestle)
- 100g shallots
- 20g garlic
- 40g fresh red chilli, seeds discarded
- 7g dried red chilli, soaked to soften
- 15g galangal
- 20g fresh turmeric
- 40g lemongrass
- 20g belacan
- banana leaves for wrapping (thawed, if previously frozen)
- 20-30 kaduk leaves
- 0.5kg – 1kg fish fillet, sliced
- Mix spice paste and custard together. Let it sit for about 30 minutes or so while you prepare the banana leaves as detailed below.
- Cut banana leaves into 18cm x 20cm. Wipe them with a clean tea towel to rid of any dirt.
- Take a piece of banana leaf and line with about three kaduk leaves in the centre.
- Place three (or more) slices of fish and about two tablespoons of custard mix in the centre.
- Fold two opposing sides of the banana leaf together. Then, fold the remaining sides to seal. Form into a little parcel and secure it with a toothpick.
- Ensure water is boiling rigorously and steam for ten minutes or until the custard sets and the fish is cooked.
- Enjoy as it is or serve with rice.
(recipe adapted from “Nonya Flavours – A complete guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine” by The Star Publications)