By: Adline A. Ghani
When I was little, I had convinced myself that the popular Malaysian food item, otak-otak, is made of brains, as ‘otak,’ in Malay, literally means ‘brain.’ I mean, with a name like that and the squishy texture, what else was a little girl supposed to think? The thought of it being made from brains didn’t stop me from eating lots of it though, and it remains a favourite of mine to this day.
These days, however, I know that otak-otak is actually a savoury fish mousse that’s made of a mixture of ground fish, thick coconut milk and fresh herbs like garlic, onion, chilli, galangal, shrimp paste, candle nuts, turmeric root and lemongrass. Some cooks also like to add finely chopped kaffir lime leaves or daun kesum (Vietnamese mint) for added flavour. The mixture is then either wrapped in a parcel made of coconut leaves and grilled over hot coals, or wrapped in a banana leaf and then steamed.
Although the taste of grilled and steamed otak-otak is pretty much the same, the latter is usually firmer and drier in texture, with a pleasant smoky and caramelized taste. Its colour is usually orangey red. The steamed otak-otak, on the other hand, is softer and much more moist, and is light brown in colour. Both varieties make great snacks foods, which can be eaten on their own, with rice or bread.
While the main ingredient in otak-otak is traditionally fresh local fish like mackerel or snapper, there are also otak-otak made of other seafood such as prawns, crab and cuttlefish, and even chicken. Some specialty otak-otak stalls actually sell otak-otak that contain fish bones, mainly from fish heads, which provides not only an interesting challenge for the otak-otak lover, but also a slight nuance in taste. One might even say that the flavour of these special otak-otaks are much richer.
Otak-otak may remain very much a delicacy to this day, but it isn’t always easy to come by, especially the roasted ones. To make them more accessible, however, local manufacturers have found a way to make frozen otak-otak, which you can easily steam or grill in the comfort of your own home. Of course, many local restaurants, including upscale kopitiams (Malaysia’s answer to Starbucks and Coffee Bean), now have otak-otak on their menu.
If you enjoy cooking and have been feeling the urge to sharpen your culinary skills, otak-otak is definitely something you should learn, as it is hard to get wrong. If you can’t get your hands on banana or coconut leaf, don’t despair, because you can easily use a ramekin or aluminum foil to contain your fish mousse. For the recipe, just Google otak-otak and you’re bound to find one to suit your liking. Once you’ve mastered otak-otak, you can enjoy it anytime, anywhere, and you’ll be the envy of all your foodie friends!