Sunday, 9 June 2013

Otak Otak, Barbecued 'Fish Brains'



The sun is shining and I haven't seen a grey cloud for a week (touch wood). It hardly feels like London anymore. I  really do need to get my ass off the couch and start preparing for my degree show, but life's been full of lovely distractions lately. I'll dedicate a proper post to all these distractions (a little sneak peek about that here) but right now, the sun in itself is a pretty lovely distraction.

I know that's one paragraph just on the sun, but when you stay in a place that's almost perpetually grey and/or cold and/or wet, the sun is a big thing. In London, when the sun is out during the week, you find a spare moment to sneak away from work and throw yourself, half-naked, on any patch of green you can find. When the sun is out on a weekend, you find yourself a group of hungry friends and get a barbecue going.

There's already been a handful so far (see asparagus and chicken skin yakitori), and the last one, was a wonderful seafood-based one. It was a very hungry group so I pretty much cleared out all the fish lady's catch of gorgeous new season mackerels. My favourite way with really fresh mackerel, is nothing more than just a good sprinkling of sea salt and a sizzling hot grill– yum. If you do want to get a bit more adventurous with your mackerels (or just bought too many), you can try making otak otak.


Otak, or otah as is called in Singapore, literally means brains in Malay. Thankfully though, this just describes the soft, mousse-like texture of the spicy fish paste and has nothing to do with grey matter. (Though I do enjoy eating grey matter, #asian.) Otak otak takes quite a bit of effort; scraping the flesh off the mackerel fillets, peeling all the shallots, pounding and frying the rempah spice paste, and then carefully wrapping the fish paste with banana leaves to form parcels, before finally grilling over hot coals. But the fragrant, charred results are often delicious enough to bribe your friends into helping you anyway, and it keeps them occupied while you get the rest of the food going.



OTAK OTAK
Makes 15-20

Ingredients
20 (8" x 5") rectangles of banana leaves

Rempah (spice paste)
500g shallots
8 large dried red chillies, soaked for 30 min
4 candlenuts (can replace with macadamias)
1 tbsp belachan, dry-toasted first
2 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp turmeric
2 tbsp unrefined sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt (adjust if needed)
3 tbsp groundnut oil or coconut oil

Filling
800g mackerel fillets
4 free range eggs
200ml thick coconut milk
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 tbsp tapioca flour or cornstarch

Method
For the rempah
1. To make the rempah, pound the shallots, chillies, candlenuts, belachan and spices till you get a smooth-ish paste. You can also use a blender, it's less ideal but I won't judge.
2. Heat the oil in a wok and fry the rempah over medium heat. Be patient and slowly fry it, stirring often; you want the paste to be dry and the flavours to intensify. Add the sugar and salt, tasting and adjusting if necessary.
3. Remove the wok from the heat when the oil separates and the rempah smells amazing, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the rest of the filling
4. Scrape the flesh off the mackerel fillets, being extra careful to leave behind the bones and skin (You don't want anyone to choke and die/ sue). Finely mince the flesh either with a knife and strong biceps, or a food processor, until a smooth paste is formed.
5. Beat the eggs and coconut milk in a bowl until well-combined. Add the fish paste, finely chopped kaffir lime leaves, tapioca flour and rempah and mix well. The consistency of the mixture should be like (american) pancake batter.

To assemble and grill
6. Soak the banana leaves in hot water for 5 minutes until soft. Drain and wipe dry with a paper towel. Place a leaf on a clean work surface, positioning it such that its veins run vertically, so it's easier to fold.
7. Scoop 2 to 3 tbsp of the filling onto the middle of the leaf and spread evenly so that it forms a rectangular strip about 1/2 cm thick. Fold one side of the leaf over the filling, covering it fully, followed by the opposite side, then secure the ends with toothpicks, to get a long thin parcel.
8. Grill over a hot barbecue, with the folds facing up as the filling may expand and burst open (especially if you have been greedy). Grill for about 10-15 minutes, flipping once, or until you smell burnt banana leaves. If it's shitty weather, you can do this in the oven too, on the grill setting at the highest temperature your oven can go.



Oh, I think in certain parts of Malaysia, they do their otah by simply steaming the fish paste in a whole tray, and I'm sure it's delicious too, but you miss the wonderful fragrance of burnt banana leaves and the drama of picking apart your own little parcel to reveal a golden orange fishcake, all soft and delicate, and wonderfully sweet and salty and fragrant with spices. I should write more but the sun is shining outside, so I'll just end here.


Other recipes for the barbie:

44 comments:

  1. Peter Archbold9 June 2013 at 06:14

    Looks bloody great. I've often wanted to try making this but I've been put off by having to buy a massive wad of banana leaves when im only making otak for two. How long do the banana leaves last in the fridge before they start rotting?

    Gotta go outside now, the sun just started peak from behind the clouds!

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    1. You can freeze banana leaves ! hurrah!

      Haha what sun. The only reason why this blog post is up today is because the sun has just about disappeared.

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  2. Oh, I'm craving a good BBQ now ! Here too the sun has been shining all week long, which is quite as much outstanding in the north of France than in London (by the way, we were in London last year at april's end and we had been in luck, because if my memory serves me right it rained only once ! - and we went crazy about the squirrels in Hyde Park, but that's a different story ;))
    but I haven't yet felt like fireing up the BBQ, too afraid as I am that the sun would disappear straight away !
    Anyway, i love grilled mackerel too, I'm seriously thinking to get some soon... A lot of work seems indeed involved in this recipe, but I can almost smell the fragrant filling from here and feel its smoothness (by the way, I love how imaginative Asians are to name their dishes)! It reminds me I definitely should try banana leaves, I've only been using bamboo or lotus leaves so far but enjoyed it much.
    Hope you'll keep enjoying the sun !

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    1. Ah well the sun just disappeared today. It was actually pretty cold. On the bright side, that's why i got this post out haha.

      GET YOUR BARBIE ON. Before the sun really disappears! And if it does in the middle of the bbq, then well, at least you tried!

      I love mackerel, just simply grilled really. I think if you;ve got fresh ones, you need nothign more than a good sprinkling of sea salt! But yea otak otak is really fun to make when you've got enough hands around to hekp, and it's a nice change especially when you've just got one type of fish but want to make dishes that have a completely different taste and texture! I think you'll liek banana leaves, the fragrance is amazing. I'm so lucky in Signapore I have a banana tree, so it's especially convenient, though not here in London of course :(

      Hoep you're having a sunny weekend in france! x

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    2. Well I should have followed your advice, the weather has been quite bad this week ! But rest assured, I will get my bbq on, now i just need to get some foods to grill on it ;) I've even prepared the ground by touching upon it to my fiancé, because it's definitely a man thing, huh ?

      By the way, I've thought of trying your chicken skin yakitori with broccoli stems, might be a good and inexpensive substitute for asparagus (which I really can't afford by now). I'd let you know how it turned out !

      High five about mackerel ! Actually as soon as I buy any kind of fresh fishes (i mean not on a special purpose) I somehow suffer a lack of imagination and end up cooking them in the simplest way, but this is perhaps the best to bring out their flavour and enjoy them ! And I have to say I seldom have a lot of helping hands around me :) But thanks for sharing this recipe.

      Hope you'll have a nice upcoming week !

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  3. I love mackerel but just do it the same old boring way, sometimes spicing it up a bit with chili and ginger but this sounds amazing.

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    1. Thanks debby! It's very different from what you might normally expect, taste and texture wise, but I reckon it's worth a shot if you've got some extra hands around (and some sun!)

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  4. Hi Shu Han, your otak otak look really nice. Very appetizing side dish, one of my favorite.

    Have a wonderful week ahead.

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  5. This is amazing—possibly my favourite post of yours since I started following! Otak Otak is always something I've drooled over but never imagined tackling in my own kitchen. This makes it seem much more doable, although still a bit daunting...anyhow, I'm happy to have read this gem before making blind attempts!
    I'm stoked about the mackerel, too... I've got a post coming up soon, although nothing as exciting as this ;)

    Where and when is your degree show? I'd love to come! Chelsea's is soon, but I can never keep track of all the UAL degree shows scattered about London in the upcoming month... actually, would it be too much trouble for you to shoot me an email about that over on my contact form? I don't think I get notified of your individual replies on here.

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    1. Otak otak is actually not that difficult to make, it;s more troublesome than difficult! Do it! :) Just been to see your mackerel post, come on it looks pretty snazz, pfft.

      My degree show's next week! 19 to 23rd, do come! Ok I'll shoot you an email about this too x

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  6. I love mackerel, probably my favourite fish. I think it's best done simply on the grill like you say. :) The otak otak looks amazing and just a little intimidating to me. I'll have to fire up the bbq soon and give this a try.

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    1. Yes I have gone both ends of the spectrum with the mackerel haven't I haha. One completely simple, just salt and on the grill, and hte other... well.. this. haha. I love both though, they have such different tastes and textures making it all the more exciting!

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  7. This makes it so easy to do! Thanks for the step by step guide of a dish that I've often eaten but never made :)

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    1. Because we get spoilt when we are back home in sg/malaysia ;)

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  8. Shu Han, I love otak-otak but I am so lazy to make!

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    1. Get your friends to make for you ;)

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  10. We do actually make it this way in Malaysia too! Lovely blog, by the way! You are an inspiration.

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    1. Thank you so much Preets! Made my day! xx

      Oh, I think it's in certain parts of Malaysia then, that it's steamed? My friend tells me he grew up with the steamed version, or perhaps it varies from household to household?

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  11. I'm from Malaysia and the ones I have are usually cooked over hot coals as well. :)

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    1. Oh, I think it's in certain parts of Malaysia then, that it's steamed? Or that you do it both ways in Malaysia? Def heard about the steamed version from some Malaysian friends! Either way, both are yum! :)

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  12. Hmmm - looks like I need to get some banana leaves!

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    1. Yes- you can simply wrap fish in it and barbecue, will still be divine.

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  13. What a fascinating recipe! I was taken aback at first with the whole fish brain thing but thankfully, it's just fish...though like you, I don't mind me some brain masala.
    I love rainy London though, that's my childhood.

    Nazneen

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    1. Hur hur hur I thought it might draw in the more adventurous readers;)
      YOU LOVE RAINY LONDON?! NOOOOO. GIVE ME BACK MY SUN!

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  14. Another unusual, but extremely tempting dish. I was almost disappointed that you didn't actually cook fish brain ;-) On the other hand you would need hundreds of mackerels for one meal!
    I love mackerel a lot, so I'm sure I would love your "fish brains". It's such a relief to see regularly here something else than salmon (which I really hate, unless it's wild, which means in 99% of cases).

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    1. Haha can you imagine the fishmonger's face if I ask for 800g worth of mackerel brains. That's probably a month's worth of catch..!
      I do remember you hate salmon and love oily cheap fishes! This is definitely one to try for you then! I know it's a bit more faff, but it's nice to do when you have the same fish and want to use it in two dishes for the same event/meal; they taste completely different taste and texture wise, which is fun!

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    2. Actually you know it reminds me of a bread spread I make with smoked mackerel and eggs.... http://www.withaglass.com/?p=9698 It's uncooked but also shredded fish meat and it's delicious.

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  15. The last otak otak i made was using salmon but never try with mackerel!! Yours sound really good !

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    1. I have never heard of otak otak made with salmon! Wow, upmarket eh? ;)

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  16. Phew, I'm rather relieved to hear that it's not *actually* brains... that's a little too hardcore for me I think. This sounds nice though - I can see why you'd rather have it cooked in a banana leave, and I read in your comment above that they can be frozen? Huzzah... I bought a pack last year from a Chinese supermarket and ended up trashing the lot because they all went mouldy before I could find a use for them :(

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    1. Haha come on Charles you live in France!! I'm sure there's worse you've eaten!
      The banana lead adds a wonderful fragrance that just can;t be replaced by any other wrapper; even just fish, wrapped simply inside and grilled, will be lovely! And yes, you definitely can freeze them!

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  17. YUMMY This is my all time favorite! Looks so mouthwatering & love this recipe but I hv to omit the belachan as I'm not fan of it! LOL BTW can I use dried kaffir lime leaves for this recipe? I can only get dried ones over here.

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    1. Oh dear I LOVEEEE belachan! I think it adds a very special aromatic (subjective of course) saltiness to the rempah, you should try it.. the taste is not detectable with all the spices used! And I think fresh kaffir lime leaves are better because they smell/taste more... fresh, but in this case, since it's chopped fine and is meant to be cooked too, perhaps the dried ones will still work.. give it a go! :)

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  18. This looks amazing. When the weather sorts itself out, of course.

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  19. I just lovelovelove your innovative skill in the kitchen...you're a super star!

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  20. Yeah, it definitely takes a bit of work (I usually ask the fishmonger to clean the fish for me...) but those otak otak (Brain? brutally descriptive!)must be delicious and oh grilled on a bbq ummm

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  21. I came here looking for BBQ Sting Ray and I found Otah as well! This blog makes my day~ actually year! Gracias

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    1. Wow haha thank you so much! Your comment made MY day! x

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  22. I want to spend a day in the life of Shuhan. I love the complexity and precision of this dish. Something I must try, when I find the time, in Seattle.

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  23. I've been wanting to make otak otak for the longest time. Think I should just go ahead and do it. I feel inspired. :)

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  24. Printable recipes: It seems like a simple thing, but across all the blogs, I see readers constantly asking for an easy way to print just the recipe in a post, so they can sit it next to their stove while they cook. The platform should stick a "print" button on each post that formats it cookbook-style.

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  25. Nice written!! I have been a big fan of your blogs. thanks best fishing line

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