This Steamed Fish with Sour Mustard, ginger, red chilies, and onions is light, tangy, and…
Otak-Otak (Steamed Fish Custard) is a delicious Nyonya dish of fish infused with a creamy and spicy coconut based custard and aromatic herbs.
Otak-Otak is one of those truly special dishes from my childhood. It is special because I did not get to eat it often. I remember it more like a treat when Grandma made it and all the uncles and aunts would return home to savor it. Like Nyonya Lam Mee (birthday noodles), it was cooked perhaps only a few times in a year. That made it all the more special.
What is Otak-Otak?
I do not know how the name came about but otak in Malay means brains. According to Wikipedia the name is derived from the idea that the dish somewhat resembles brains, being whitish grey, soft and almost squishy. This is not exactly an inspiring or appetizing name. Thankfully, my version has a more orangey red color which makes it less brain-like. I hope that helps in case you are having second thoughts about making this dish…lol! 🙂
That said, Otak-Otak is truly a tasty dish of steamed fish infused with a spicy coconut based custard further flavored with aromatic herbs. While its preparation requires some specialty ingredients like daun kaduk (wild betel leaves) and galangal, it is actually quite easy to make. If you can gather all the ingredients, the rest is a breeze.
Two Versions of Otak-Otak
While this Nyonya steamed version can be steamed in banana leaf packages, the taste is quite different from the southern peninsular version found in Muar, Johor. That version is more like grilled spicy fish cakes. The fish is processed together with spices into a paste. A tiny portion of the fish paste is then wrapped in a piece of banana leaf into a slim parcel. This parcel is then grilled over charcoal fire. Unlike the Nyonya steamed Otak-Otak, the Muar version is usually eaten more like a snack than a main dish with steamed rice.
An Important Ingredient and a Substitute
When one thinks of Nyonya Steamed Otak-Otak, daun kaduk (wild betel leaves) immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately, this herb cannot be easily found where I live. The only way to get it is to grow the herb myself. I have tried twice and failed. You can read about both my attempts here –> How to Grow Kaduk (Wild Betel) in Container.
However, this spring Paul found some shiso seeds early in the planting season. I sowed the seeds and they grew into these beautiful plants with leaves that reminded us of daun kaduk. Shiso (perilla) is a minty herb used in Japanese and Korean cuisine. This variety has heart-shaped leaves like daun kaduk but unlike daun kaduk they are a little furry and not smooth and glossy. Some varieties do have smooth and glossy leaves and I have purchased those leaves several times from a Korean market in Minnesota when we were still living there.
Paul challenged me to use the shiso that we planted as a substitute for making this Otak-Otak dish. How could I not take up his challenge when I have not tasted this wonderful dish since my Grandma’s passing many, many years ago? I am glad I did. The shiso leaves are a good substitute for daun kaduk. Shiso leaf has a light minty flavor while daun kaduk has a light minty flavor plus a slight lemony flavor. If anything, the texture provides a greater difference between the two.
The Spice Paste
Like many Nyonya recipes, the spice paste used by each household is a closely guarded secret. Most of these recipes are handed down from mother to daughter by rote. They are seldom written down. There are no measurements for each ingredient. They are more by feel and depends greatly on the experience of the cook. Hence, it is important to hone those skills through years of practice.
Apart from the spice paste ingredients listed below, some like to add a little belacan (shrimp paste) for a greater depth of flavor and sugar to round off the taste. I omitted both because I prefer a brighter taste and I do not usually like to add sugar to my curries. You are certainly welcomed to experiment with adding one or both. Maybe I might just give it a try when I cook this dish again.
Grandma’s Recipe Using Fish Steaks
Most Otak-Otak recipes call for fish fillets but my Grandma used fish steaks instead place in a casserole. While I do not have Grandma’s exact recipe because she never wrote down her recipes, I believe this recipe is close. If I remember correctly, hers was a little more yellow in color which means that she must have used more fresh turmeric and fewer chili peppers. Even so, I am quite happy with how tasty this turned out to be.
The only fish steaks I could find are salmon fish steaks with the pieces of fish cut crosswise. It would be nice if I can find cod steaks. Grandma used ma yau yue (threadfin) or senangin (in Malay) steaks. This fish is not inexpensive but it has a tender and sweet flesh and is highly sought after in Malaysia and Singapore.
Similar Products Used in Making This Otak-Otak (Steamed Fish Custard)
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Oster 6-Cup Glass Jar 12-Speed Blender
Pyrex Prepware 1-Cup Measuring Cup
Pyrex 8″ Square Baking Dish with Blue Plastic Lid
Classic Series Carbon Steel Wok, 14-inch
Stainless Steel Folding Hot Dish Plate Clip Plate Retriever Tongs
- 1 banana leaf (to line casserole dish)
- 4 fish steaks ** (about 1½ lbs / 675g), scales removed
- 24 wild betel leaves (daun kaduk) ***
- 6 kaffir lime leaves (finely sliced)
- 6 red chilies (seeded and cut into pieces)
- 10 shallots (peeled)
- 3 cloves garlic (peeled)
- 2 stalks lemongrass
- 1 in galangal / lengkus
- 1 inch turmeric
- Scald banana leaf in hot water to soften. Line an 8-inch deep casserole dish with the banana leaves. Trim off excess banana leaf.
- Arrange 12 wild betel leaves (daun kaduk) to cover the base of the casserole dish. Place fish steaks on the top of the wild betel leaves (daun kaduk). Sprinkle kaffir lime leaves on top of the fish. Set aside.
- Combine custard ingredients in a medium sized bowl.
- Beat with a whisk until custard mixture is smooth.
- Blend spice paste ingredients in a blender.
- Pour spice mix puree into the custard mixture bowl. Stir until well incorporated.
- Pour half of the custard and spice mixture over the fish. Arrange remaining 12 wild betel leaves (daun kaduk) on the top and pour remaining custard and spice mixture over the wild betel leaves (daun kaduk).
- Fill a large wok or pan with about 2 inches of water. Place a metal rack or stand in the wok or pan. Cover with a lid and bring water to a boil.
- When water comes to a boil, transfer casserole dish onto metal rack. Cover and steam over rapidly boiling water for about 15 minutes.
- Remove and serve immediately.
Side Dishes That Go Well With Otak-Otak
I served this Steamed Fish Custard with rice and Pan Fried Eggplant. Other recommended side dishes include the following…
1. Bendi Goreng Belacan (Okra Belacan Stir Fry)
2. Pickled Cucumber and Shrimp Stir Fry
3. Kerabu Timun (Spicy Cucumber Salad)