I’m always on the lookout for new things to cook on the barbecue to break up the monotony of steak, steak and more steak! Ikan Bakar is a popular Malaysian and Indonesian dish of grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves and marinated in a chilli sambal paste. I first tried it earlier this year when we were in Singapore at a food hawker centre and I’ve been craving it ever since. Ikan baker is quite easy to replicate at home with the only difficulty being sourcing fresh banana leaves. I actually found some at our local green grocer and most Asian grocery stores stock them but if you can’t find any just wrap the fish in foil, although doing so means you won’t get the fantastic aroma the banana leaves impart or the wonderful char it creates on the fish. I prefer to use a whole fish but you can also use fish fillets, any firm fleshed white fish will do, I particularly like a whole large snapper. All you need to accompany the ikan baker is lots of steamed rice and some sliced cucumbers.
1 whole fish, scaled and gutted. Any firm fleshed white fish will work well. I like to use snapper
2 large fresh red chilies, deseeded and cut into small pieces
3 shallots, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic
1 lemongrass, white section only, finely sliced
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
1 tablespoon toasted belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste)
2 tablespoons tamarind puree or paste
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons oil
Place the chillies, shallots, garlic, lemongrass and turmeric in a blender or mini food processor with a splash of water and blend until a smooth paste. Heat the oil in a small skillet or wok and when hot add the blended paste and cook over medium heat until fragrant and the oil is starting to separate from the paste. Add the Belacan and stir it into the paste until it is incorporated. Add the tamarind puree and cook for a further minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and sugar. Set the sambal aside to cool to room temperature.
When the sambal has cooled down cut a few long diagonal slits into each side of fish. Lay a banana leaf that is large enough to cover one side of the fish on the counter with the darker, shinier side of the leaf facing upwards. Place the fish on the banana leaf and spread the sambal generously all over the fish and into the slits you have cut as well as in the cavity. I find it easiest to do this by hand wearing disposable gloves. Be generous with the marinade and really pile it on. Take another sheet of banana leaf and place it in top of the fish to cover it, again with the darker side facing the fish. Use toothpicks to secure the banana leaves together and don’t worry about any large gaps between the toothpicks, the aim isn’t to steam the fish in the leaves, it’s just to ensure that they are attached together to make turning the fish on the grill easier.
Heat your barbecue and when hot place the fish on the grill and cook for roughly 12 minutes per side (this should be enough time for a 1.2 kg fish) over a medium flame, turning once. The banana leaves make turning the fish very easy, don’t worry if the leaves look as though they are charring or if they split open a little. When the fish has finished cooking on the second side place it on a platter and remove the top banana leaf and serve straight away.