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.
20 (8" x 5") rectangles of banana leaves
Rempah (spice paste)
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
800g mackerel fillets
4 free range eggs
200ml thick coconut milk
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 tbsp tapioca flour or cornstarch
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: