The mere mention of otak-otak and the visual picture of perfectly steamed and moist fish custard wrapped with banana leaves often sets my mouthwatering. Otak-otak is a classic Nyonya dish—brightly flavored with various aromatic herbs, exotic spices, and infused with the sweet fragrance of rich coconut milk.
In Southeast Asia, there are variations of fish custard in the neighboring countries: in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore it’s known as otak-otak, in Thailand, there is a similar dish called Hor Mok that includes an assortment of seafood—fish fillet, shrimp, and squid, and in Cambodia their variation is called Amok. And needless to say, I have bias in favor of Malaysian otak-otak—be it Nyonya’s or the famed Muar grilled otak-otak…
Now, what’s the secret ingredient in Nyonya version of otak-otak? Wild betel leaves or known locally as “daun kaduk.” Much like bunga kantan to Assam Laksa, without daun kaduk, you simply can’t—and won’t—have authentic otak-otak.
Otak-otak is impossibly delicious with a very complex taste structure, but they are not easy to make. If you are willing to invest the time and dedication, much like Nyonya cooks, you will be rewarded with parcels of steamed goodness.
Adapted from Nonya Flavours: A Complete Guide to Penang Straits Chinese Cuisine
1 banana leaf (cut into 8 x 10″ rectangles-shapped and soak in hot water to soften the leaf)
500g fish fillet (slices)
20-30 wild betel leaves (daun kaduk)
1 cup coconut milk
2 tsp rice flour
3 kaffir lime leaves (finely sliced)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
3 cloves garlic
5 fresh red chilies
4 dried red chilies
2 stalks lemon grass
1 inch galangal
1 inch turmeric
20g shrimp paste (toasted)
1. Chop the spice paste ingredients and then blent it in a food processor until fine.
2. Combine the custard ingredients,add in spice paste and mix well.
3. Place 2-3 kadok leaves in the center of a banana leaf.Top with 2-3 slices of fish fillet 2 tbsp of the custard mixture.
4. To form a pyramid-shapped. Fold up both sides of the banana leaf to meet in the centre and fold up the other two ends to meet in the center and secure with bamboo tooth picks.
5. Heat up wok and boiling water.Steam for 10 minutes over rapidly boiling water.
6. Unwrap the leaves and serve immediately.
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