What Is Otak-Otak?

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  • Written By: Angie Bates
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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Otak-otak is a fish-based custard or paste popular in Southeast Asia. Normally made fresh, the dish uses several herbs and spices common to Asian cuisine, as well as coconut milk and white fish. It is traditionally cooked and served in banana leaves.

Although mackerel is often used in otak-otak, any type of white fish can be used instead. The fish is traditionally fresh, and must first be deboned and the scales removed. Fillets, fresh or frozen, may also be used. The fish is normally minced, but may be sliced, before inclusion in the dish.

Chili peppers and dried chili powder, as well as salt and sugar, are usually included in otak-otak. Fresh turmeric, lemongrass, coconut milk, and eggs are also normal ingredients. Galangal, a type of ginger, along with kaffir lime leaves, is usually added to the dish as well. Other possible seasonings include coriander, shallots, garlic, and white pepper. Candlenuts are normally included in order to thicken the custard.

To create otak-otak, most of the spices and nuts are ground into a paste. Traditionally a mortar and pestle is used, but a food processor produces similar, and quicker, results. After the paste is created, it is cooked in a skillet and combined with the sugar, salt, and, if used, coriander. Once fragrant, the cooked paste is combined with the coconut milk, eggs, and shredded lime leaves. The fish may also be included at this time.


In addition to the paste or custard ingredients, banana leaves are usually used in otak-otak. Once the paste is made, it is placed into the banana leaves, which are folded into a sort of bowl or pyramid around the custard and secured by toothpicks. Leaves of the betel, a native South Asian plant in the pepper family, are often placed on the banana leaves before the paste. If betel leaves are unavailable, spinach leaves can be used as a substitute, but they will not have the stimulant effect of the betel. In versions where the fish is not already included in the custard, slivers of meat are placed on the leaves and then topped with the paste.

Once the otak-otak is prepared, it is normally grilled or steamed, though it also may be baked. After being cooked, the dish is served still wrapped in the banana leaves, but the leaves are unfolded before the custard is eaten. If leaves are not used, small individual dishes or ramekins can be used. Otak-otak is often served with rice or bread.


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