The Secrets of a Family Recipe


Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

To try Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's grandmother's otah, click here for the recipe.

The first time my grandmother was hospitalized for the mysterious pains that would lead to her death, she had an important thing on her mind.

Summoning my Uncle Soo Kiat to the bedside of her Singapore hospital, she said, "I've made the chili paste for otah," referring to a creamy and spicy fish paste wrapped in banana leaves that was one of her many signature dishes. "The fish has been bought; the otah must be made."

She whispered the recipe to my uncle. Her mind, then, was at rest.

To say that my paternal grandmother was a legendary cook would be far too inadequate. Yes, my Tanglin Ah-Ma as I called her--she once lived near the Tanglin area of Singapore--was well-known in many circles for the melt-in-your-mouth buttery pineapple tarts and hearty glutinous-rice dumplings she would produce in her little kitchen.

Otah, a Malay dish, would not be an expected notch in a traditional Chinese home cook's kitchen post.

But what truly defined her was a selfless and unceasing desire to feed her loved ones. If you loved someone, you fed them. It was as simple as that.

I was just 11 when my grandmother died at the relatively young age of 64. I'd been too young--and too obsessed with reading--to learn how to make any of my Tanglin Ah-Ma's dishes before she died. In the years since, deep regret has set in and the longing for a culinary connection with her has only intensified.

In my Brooklyn, N.Y., kitchen, when I bake or put soup on the stove, I often find myself wondering, "How would Tanglin Ah-Ma have done it?" As a result, I've been spending chunks of this lunar calendar year learning to cook with my family in Singapore, trying to temper that yearning.

In the kitchen of my Auntie Khar Imm, who lived and cooked with Tanglin Ah-Ma, the lesson on a recent day was 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.

Simply thinking about it is often all it takes to get my mouth watering.

The process takes two days. On the first, my aunt and I began by chopping up lemongrass, shallots, galangal, turmeric and lightly toasted, crumbled belacan (fermented, ground dried shrimp) and blending them together in a food processor together with candlenuts and a little water to make a paste.


Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Next, we took this paste and started frying it over medium heat in a large wok. While that was frying, we tossed sun-dried chilis that had been softened in boiling water and tiny, flaming-hot bird's eye chilis into the processor and blended that all together. We then added this paste to the wok, mixing it all up well.

We wanted the chili paste to get really dry--the best way to tell whether there's still water in the paste is to add oil (which we did periodically during the frying) and then inspect the oil to see if white wispy strands appear. If we saw the wisps, there was still water in the mixture.

About an hour and a half later, the paste was dry enough--we scooped it out to cool overnight on the kitchen table.

When I showed up at my aunt's the next day, I was presented with a massive, gray fish.

"Beh gah he," she called it, as I tried to jot down what those Teochew words sounded like. With my grasp of Teochew, the Chinese dialect of my family, being tenuous at best, I quickly took a picture of the fish, desperately hoping that its face or sheen had enough identifying characteristics that I might somehow be able to find it back in New York City.

As we chopped, squeezed shredded coconut for milk and blended together coriander, tapioca flour, eggs, salt and a dash of monosodium glutamate to the fish and cooled chili paste mixture, Auntie Khar Imm began to tell the story of this otah.

Otah, a Malay dish, would not be an expected notch in a traditional Chinese home cook's kitchen post. My grandmother, however, had come upon this recipe after taking in an elderly Indonesian cook in the neighborhood who had no family to take care of her when she became ill. Tanglin Ah-Ma invited her to move in, cooking and caring for her. In return, this cook imparted her cherished Malay and Indonesian recipes.

And decades later, there I sat in my aunt's kitchen, carefully scooping fish paste into banana leaves, sealing them up and steaming them while marveling at the generosity of my grandmother--and the delicious otah recipe that it had begotten.

On the way home, I noticed massive neon-yellow splotches covering my very newly manicured nails.

My aunt had warned me not to chop the turmeric, trying to shield her high-maintenance New York niece from getting the bright-yellow juice stains on her hands.

The marks of my grandmother's recipe, however, felt oddly satisfying.

I began to feel as if I was getting somewhere.