Otak-Otak: Spicy Fish Mousse in Banana Leaf

Otak-otak stands for brains in malay and this is attributed to the fact that this delicacy apparently resembles brains. There are, however, no brains in this dish. Although the name does imply a squishy, soft, yucky texture, this is really a delight to eat. Trust me, it is absolutely delicious; what more with the addition of fresh chilli, lemongrass, spices such as turmeric, galangal, perfumed with kaffir lime leaf and added richness from the coconut milk, all wrapped up in a parcel of banana leaf then steamed or char-grilled. A friend asked me which style I was making and I wasn’t aware that there were many styles of making and cooking otak-otak; I’m only familiar with the char-grilled version although I do recall my mother in law steaming hers in a deep dish.

I like the notion of char-grilling the otak-otak; the flame-licked banana leaf parcel perfuming the fish paste tucked within with a touch of smoky flavour. I don’t own a barbecue and my first attempt at my friend’s Malaysian themed dinner  using a griddle pan produced a steamed outcome for reasons unknown to me. Perhaps my banana leaf parcel retained too much moisture so it ended up steaming the fish paste instead of dry-grilling it. For my second trial, I grilled them in the oven instead so the dry heat gave me that desired result. As you can see above, I’ve been generous with the fish paste. It’s usually half the length of that depicted. Tearing open the parcels is so exciting to me, like unwrapping a christmas present and I just love how the slightly burnt, shrivelled up banana leaf opens up to reveal a smooth, delicious morsel.

I referred to this nyonya otak-otak recipe for the ingredients but chopped and changed the quantities according to how much fish I bought. I used a combination of gummy flake and basa fish. The green leaf at the base of the fish paste is the betel leaf, sold in vietnamese markets. As fresh banana leaves are hard to come by here in Melbourne (duh!), I got the frozen one instead so before cutting them into 20cm squares, I softened the leaves by boiling them in water for about 3 minutes in a big stock pot. Instead of steaming the parcels as per the recipe, as mentioned, I grilled them in the oven for about 15 minutes.

We had this last week served with steam rice and leftover spicy anchovy sambal.

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2 comments to Otak-Otak: Spicy Fish Mousse in Banana Leaf

  • Dhania


    I really enjoy reading your blog and the wonderful recipes. I’d love to try this one. Could you please let me know from which store you bought the frozen banana leaves from?


  • Mei Sze

    Hi Dhania,

    You can get the frozen packed leaves at various Asian Grocery stores and vietnamese markets:-
    I got mine from Dong Thinh International Food Store in Preston.
    You can try
    – Footscray Market
    – Laguna Oriental Supermarket in Melbourne CBD
    -Wing Cheong asian grocery store in Chinatown
    -Springvale markets
    basically try any asian grocery store. They should stock them.
    Have fun making the otak-otak…I recommend grilling the parcels and also when you prepare the fish meat..process it in the blender until you get a paste or mousse like consistency before you add it to the spice paste.