Recipe: Otah

The paste--also known as otak or otak-otak--is a spicy mousse, usually made with mackerel, that is wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed or grilled. It can be eaten on its own, mashed into rice or slathered onto bread for a savory lunch or breakfast.

    • 1 kilogram of shallots
    • 50 grams of candlenuts (macadamia nuts can be substituted)
    • Two to three thick stalks of lemongrass
    • 50 grams of blue ginger/galangal
    • 50 grams of yellow ginger/turmeric
    • 2 Tablespoons toasted, crumbled belacan
    • 100 grams dried chilis, boiled in hot water for 15 minutes to soften
    • 12 chili padi, also known as bird's eye chilis (Add more if you want it to be spicier)
    • 1 1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
    • 3/4 Tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon of salt
    • 1 kilogram mackerel
    • 1/4 teaspoon monosodium glutamate
    • 2 Tablespoons tapioca flour
    • 2 Tablespoons ground coriander
    • 1 1/2 Tablespoons sugar
    • 8 eggs, beaten
    • 3 1/2 cups of coconut milk
    • Fresh banana leaves*, cut into eight-inch by five-inch rectangles
    • Sharp toothpicks

Thinly slice lemongrass, shallots, galangal, and turmeric, and blend it together in a food processor with the crumbled belacan and candlenuts. Remove paste and transfer that to a large wok and fry over medium heat.

Blend together softened, dried chilis and chili padi in food processor with about 1/4 cup of water. Add chili mixture to the paste you're frying up in the wok. Add 3/4 tablespoon of salt.

Keep frying the paste--after half an hour, start gradually adding about 1 1/4 cup oil to the mixture while frying. You want the mixture to get really dry. The best way to tell whether there's still water in the paste is to add oil by the 1/4 cup and then inspect the oil to see if white wispy strands appear. If you see the wisps, there's still water in the mixture.

About an hour and a half later, the paste should be dry enough. Remove from wok and let it cool overnight.

The next day, fill a large wok with water and bring it to a boil. Soak the banana leaf rectangles in batches in the water for about a minute or two to soften the leaves. You want them to be pliant enough to be folded with ease.

Cut up the fish into smaller-than-bite-size pieces. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together four to five cups of the chili paste (add more if you like it spicy), coconut milk, eggs, sugar, coriander, tapioca flour, monosodium glutamate, and 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Add fish to the bowl and mix it up well.

Take a banana leaf, position it on your hand so its veins are vertical, then scoop two to three tablespoons of the fish mixture onto the leaf so it forms a slender vertical strip along the middle. Make sure that the paste does not reach the ends of the leaf--you don't want it to spill out.

Fold over the left side of the leaf and then the right side of the leaf so you have a long, slender otah that's about an inch and a half in width. Secure the top and bottom of the strip with toothpicks. Repeat with the rest of the mixture.

Steam otah for 10 minutes and serve it with rice or bread.

*Note: If you can't find fresh banana leaves, you can scoop the fish paste into a bowl and steam it.

Presented by

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based food and fashion writer. She is the author of the recently released A Tiger In The Kitchen, a food memoir about learning about her family in Singapore by cooking with them.

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