For a ‘Nasi Lemak loving’ household, the fine accompaniment of skinny envelopes of folded banana leaves encased with hot spicy grilled otak-otak grew to be a natural staple of our home menu over time. The reason I hadn’t added otak-otak to our Barang menu had been simple:in 2007 Brisbane wasn’t ready to get too experimental with what was considered ‘new cuisine’—the flavours of Southeast Asia at Barang had been excitement enough for diners once only game for what was Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese or Indian if they were picking off an Asian menu. The result was a menu more ‘meaty’ than piscine. Did I forget to add, the making of otak-otak takes so much love!
Seafood can be a rather fiddly ingredient and freshness is key to achieving a mark of quality. The good news for home cooks is that you can make otak-otak paste in advance and freeze it for up to 3 months. In Singapore, the locals simply call it ‘otak’ (pronounced “O-Ta”)—there are both the traditional ruler-width skinny and long banana-leaf wrapped otak-otak(usually made of mackerel fish) as well as the plumper widths of more exotic seafood flavoured otak-otak made with prawns or cuttlefish. In my recipe here you can substitute the mackerel for any choice of seafood you prefer. It is made to a time-honoured traditional recipe for otak-otak and takes love, time and patience to put together (Don’t tell me I didn’t warn you!)
But once you undo the toothpicks to sink your teeth into this otak, the familiar taste of eating a plate of Nasi Lemak where you last remembered will transport you distinctly to Singapore or Malaysia.
Main Ingredients For Otak-Otak:
250g mackerel fish flesh cut into little pieces (all bones tweezed)
250g prawns or cuttlefish (shelled, cleaned and minced in a food processor)
3 stalks serai (lemongrass)
6 buah keras (candlenuts)
1/2 inch piece of turmeric ginger(or substitute with turmeric powder;1/2 TB)
8 dried chillies (with seeds, soaked till soft and water discarded)
1 cube or 10g belachan, ready roasted
2 cloves garlic
10 small shallots
3 tsp cumin seeds (ground and roasted)
2 TB grated fresh coconut* (pounded slightly, then fried and caramelised slightly to golden brown)*optional if unavailable
3/4 C very thick coconut milk (if fresh), or
3/4 C coconut cream
1 tsp daun kesum (laksa leaf; chopped finely)
4 kaffir lime leaves (chopped finely; stem threads discarded)
salt, to taste
2 TB rice flour
1 T cornflour
banana leaves (steamed till softened or boiled for a few minutes)
toothpicks for piercing and fastening leaves
In a food processor, except for the seafood and coconut milk/cream, add all the above spices and process to a pulp.
Stir-fry the grated coconut* till it cartelises slightly and leave aside to cool.
Stir-fry the processed spices with some oil till it is fragrant. Turn off the heat.
In a medium saucepan, add the fresh coconut milk or canned coconut cream (whichever of the two you are using) and bring to a slow boil with the addition of the stir-fried processed spices. Stir the spices in the saucepan to mix well with the coconut mixture. Add salt to taste as the mixture comes to a boil and turn off the heat once the mixture is thick enough to set. To thicken mixture, use the rice flour and cornflour mixed with a little warm water.
Add the seafood of your choice: minced fish, prawns or cuttlefish—to the thickened mixture; mix well into a thick paste. Add the daun kesum and kaffir lime leaves and mix well.
Assembling the otak-otak for grilling:
Place a bit of the raw otak-otak paste in the centre of a cut piece of softened banana leaf.
Fold two sides over the other and secure the ends with a toothpick each. Repeat until you’ve used up all the paste. Grill over a charcoal fire or on the ‘grill function’ in your home oven at medium heat, turning whenever necessary till otak-otak is cooked.