Trip To Malaysia Provides Delightful Nyonya Cuisine
When living in the US, we never thought twice about packing the car and going for a road trip on a long weekend. Now in Singapore, we usually opt to jump on a budget airline and fly to Thailand or Indonesia for a few days. Recently, we chose to avoid the airport altogether and drove over the border to Malaysia to explore nearby Melaka (also known as Melacca) for a bit of history and local food.
Melaka is strategically located port city that became a leading center of the spice trade in the early 1500s. Because it was colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British and only gained independence in 1957, it’s a rich melting pot of races, cultures and religion – made up of a fascinating mix of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians of Portuguese, Dutch and English ancestry.
One of the most prominent communities in Melaka is the Peranakans, descendants of the Chinese immigrants who intermarried with local Malays in the 15th century. Peranakans established their unique customs over the generations blending their Chinese cultural practices with local Malay traditions. Of course, the Peranakans have their own cuisine, Nyonya cuisine, which is a wonderful combination of the strong Malay spices and herbs combined with ingredients like belacan (dried shrimp paste), chilis, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves … which are then combined with traditional Chinese ingredients and cooking methods.
Not surprisingly, the best Nyonya food is said to be homemade recipes passed down through the generations, with rempah as the base seasoning for most recipes. Rempah is a paste made of pungent aromatics and spices ground in a mortar and pestle, adding the signature depth of flavor to Peranakan cooking. A classic Nyonya dish, and one of my favorites, is otak otak - a delicate fish mousse seasoned with rempah, herbs and rich coconut milk, then wrapped in banana leaves and either steamed or grilled to perfection over charcoal.
Otak otak is a Southeast Asian favorite with regional variations, but, according to local Melakans, the Southwestern coast of Malaysia has the best because of their use of fresh betelnut leaves which add complex layers of flavor. Eaten as a snack or with rice and sambal (spicy chili paste) as a part of a meal, otak otak is a savory treat. Below is one of my favorite otak otak recipes.
Nyonya Otak Otak (Banana Leaf Wrapped Fish Mousse)
3/4 lb mackeral or snapper filet, deboned / skin removed and cut into 2 “x 1/2” pieces
1/4 cup canola oil
10 fresh betelnut leaves (optional)
3 banana leaves, cut into 8 – 7”x 10” rectangles
rempah (spice paste):
2 cloves garlic
2 1/4 inch coins peeled galangal
1 inch turmeric root, peeled
1 lemongrass, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 fresh red chilis, seeded
1 tablespoon belacan (shrimp paste)
2 beaten eggs
1 cup thick coconut milk
2 tablespoons non-glutinous rice flour
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 kaffir lime leaves, stem removed and cut into very fine slivers
Use a mortar and pestle or food processor to grind together the ingredients for the rempah. The mixture needs to be thick and fairly smooth, set aside. Wipe out the food processor and grind 1/4 lb of the fish filet into a thick mousse and refrigerate until ready to use.
In a small saute pan, heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium heat and fry the rempah until a shade darker, about 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer the rempah to a large bowl and whisk in the eggs, coconut milk, rice flour, sugar, salt and kaffir lime leaves. Right before assembling, stir the chilled fish mousse into the batter.
To assemble, rub 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil all over the banana leaves and then trim into 8 – 7” x 10” rectangles. Place 1 betelnut leaf in the middle of the banana leaf and spoon 3 tablespoons of the fish batter lengthwise down the middle of each rectangle. Push 3 strips of fish into the mousse and create a thin parcel by pulling the edges together and overlapping to form a 3” x 10” packet. Secure the parcel by weaving a toothpick across each short end of the parcel. Repeat with the remaining filling, fish and banana leaves. Chill until ready to grill.
Heat a grill to 400ºF and place the packets 4 at a time on the grate and grill until crispy brown one one side, about 4 minutes. Flip the packets and grill on the other side for another 4 to 5 minutes. Serve piping hot with rice and sambal.