Spicy fishcakes grilled in banana leaves

Spicy fishcakes grilled in banana leaves

Otak otak

Street Food Asia
Alan Benson

This classic street snack is found all over Jakarta and is also very common in Malaysia. It’s basically a kind of fishcake formed into a long, flat rectangle, wrapped in banana leaf and grilled. I come across it in Chinatown, where an elderly woman walks through the crowds, carrying a beautiful bamboo tray stacked neatly with hundreds of them. She yells ‘otak otak’ as she goes, to attract customers. She’s got several types; one that’s pretty much just plain mackerel, pale in colour and infused with the distinctive, smoky flavour of the banana leaf. Another type is golden inside and richly flavoured with aromatics like turmeric, makrut leaves and chilli. I love both styles but the recipe I’ve done here is for the spicy version. It’s a perfect dish for a barbecue; prep lots and serve them as a snack on their own or eat them with some rice, a sambal and a few other favourite dishes.


Quantity Ingredient
2 large banana leaves, central ribs removed
500g snapper or mackerel fillets, roughly sliced
2 eggs
250ml coconut milk
2 teaspoons rice flour
3 makrut leaves (kaffir lime), finely sliced
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon sugar

Spice paste

Quantity Ingredient
8 red asian shallots, peeled
3 garlic cloves, peeled
4 fresh red chillies
4 dried red chillies
2 lemongrass stems, white part only
3cm piece of galangal, peeled and chopped
3cm piece of turmeric, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons shrimp paste


  1. Cut each banana leaf into ten 6 x 10 cm pieces and soak in hot water for 5 minutes to soften. Wipe dry and set aside.
  2. Put the fish, eggs, coconut milk, rice flour, makrut leaves, salt and sugar in a food processor and blend to form a rough paste. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
  3. Add the spice paste ingredients to the same food processor and blend together well, then return the fish paste to the food processor and blend the two pastes together until well combined.
  4. Spread 3–4 heaped tablespoons of the fishcake paste mixture in the middle of each banana leaf piece. Now fold the sides of the leaf over tightly as you would a parcel, tucking both ends underneath and securing each with a toothpick.
  5. Repeat with the remaining fishcake paste mixture and banana leaf pieces.
  6. Bring a half-filled large steamer, wok or saucepan to a rapid boil over a high heat and heat a barbecue chargrill or chargrill pan to medium–high. Place the parcels in your steamer basket, seam side down, and steam, covered, for 10 minutes, then transfer to the chargrill and cook for a further 5 minutes on each side (this will give the fishcakes a nice, smoky flavour).
  7. Unwrap the leaves and serve hot.
South-East Asian
Street Food
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