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Penang Otak Otak

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Otak Otak is one of my favorite snacks and it can be enjoyed in so many ways! It is one of the dishes I must have with my nasi lemak and I love those old school “otak buns” from neighbourhood confectioneries for breakfast or tea. They are also good on their own, eaten directly off the leaves. But one thing that has intrigued me for the longest time is its name. “Otak” literally means “brain” in Bahasa Melayu. I’d often wondered what the link between the dish and the jelly-like organ in our heads… very very “mind-boggling”, with no pun intended! It was not until I discovered Penang Otak Otak that this “mystery” is finally solved!


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Otak Otak is a regional dish in this part of the world we live in. It is very common street food in Malaysia and Indonesia, and once in a while, we can still see folks peddling their otak over here in Singapore, grilling them over a cindering charcoal stove which had been perched on the back of a bicycle. The variety we get in Singapore, likening the famous Muar Otak from Johor is in the form of seasoned and spiced fish paste that had been blended with coconut milk. The concoction is then encased into two strips of nipah or coconut leaves and subsequently “panggang” until the fish paste within is aromatic and cooked. But Penang Otak Otak takes on a totally different twist. Originating from another popular thai snack Hor Mok Pla, Penang Otak otak is in essence a “steamed fish curry”, developing a soft and almost custardy texture which resembles, yes you’ve got it… brains!
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Ingredients for Penang Otak Otak minus the bunga kantan, which is used for another Penang Peranakan dish!

Apart from the use of coconut milk, the aromatics are played through the use of daun limau purut, while yet another unique feature of Penang Otak Otak, daun kadok renders a more interesting dimension of flavours. In the south, Muar and Singapore otak otak use mackerel varieties like ikan batang and ikan tenggiri, as well as a hoard of other seafood like prawns and squid. I’d even eaten crab and fish head otak over here before! But in Penang, ikan kurau aka threadfin is the fish of choice, although many hawkers and street peddlers have switched to other fish varieties as the prices of ikan kurau is simply too prohibitive to use it to make otak otak anymore. The “bungkus” techqniue for Penang otak otak is also interesting. Unlike the little cups used for  Hor Mok Pla created out of banana leaves, Penang Otak otak is ceremoniously wrapped into a parcel which likens other nyonya kueh like kueh kochi santan and kueh bangkong.
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Daun kadok, which is hardly seen in the wet markets but a very commonly grown in our local parks as an ground cover.

Penang Otak Otak (10 parcels) adapted from  “Nonya Flavours – a Complete Guide to Penang Straits Chinse Cuisine

For wrapping
10 pieces of banana leaves, each about 18 x 20 cm
10 toothpicks with pointed ends (traditionally, the hardened mid-rib of coconut leaves were used)
20-30 daun kaduk (daon kadok). choose the younger leaves which are more pungent

For the custard paste
500g of fresh fish meat, ikan kurau or other white fish varieties, cut into small chunks
250 ml thick coconut milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 heaped tbsp of rice flour
6-8 daun limau purut, finely julienned (I find it easier to use scissors to snip)
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt

For the rempah
15 shallots, peeled and sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
5-6 fresh red chilies, deseeded and sliced (for more heat, leave the seeds on)
10-12 dried red chilies, soaked in hot water until soften and drained
thumb-length knob of lengkwas (galangal), peeled and sliced finely
thumb-length knob of kunyit (tumeric), peeled and sliced finely
3 batons seray (lemongrass), lower white portion only, sliced finely
2 tsp of toasted belacan, crushed coarsely into powder
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Toasting of belacan can be easily done over placing the pieces of belacan over a piece of aluminium foil in old wok or kuali. The unmistakable aroma would tell you that it is ready!

Method
To prepare rempah, pound or blend all the ingredients into a fine paste.
To prepare otak filling, place all custard paste ingredients and rempah in a large bowl and mix well.
Cover the mixing bowl with clingfilm and leave to marinate in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.
To prepare banana leaves, carefully wilt the cut out pieces of banana leaves over a gentle flame or in a wok of boiling water to soften them. Pat dry and set aside.
To wrap, first place a piece of banana leaf over a flat surface.
Place 2-3 pieces of daon kadok as the base and scoop generously 2-3 tbsp of marinated otak filling over the leaves.
Bring up the two longer sides of the banana leaf and with the other hand, fold over the shorter end of the piece to meet in the centre and repeat for the other side. Fasten parcel with a toothpick.
Repeat procedure until all the ingredients and banana leaves are used up.
Steam the otak parcels over rapidly boiling water and high heat for 10-15 min.
Serve immediately with rice, bread or on its own as a snack.

Still not sure on how to go about wrapping the otak otak? Hopefully the pictorial guide below would be of help to you!
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Rempah mix just after being blended. It is then mixed with the other custard ingredients and marinated overnight.
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On a piece of banana leaf, place 2-3 pieces of daon kadok as the base
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Scoop generously 2-3 tbsp of otak filling over the daon kadok leaves.
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Bring up the two longer sides of the banana leaf with one hand.
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Using the other hand, bring up one of the shorter sides… I’m juggling it with one hand as the other is holding the camera! Don’t even ask what I’d using to hold up the flash!
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Fold back the two ends of the shorter side towards the centre.
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Repeat with the other side until you get a nice and neat pyramidal parcel… almost done!
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Secure the parcel by “weaving” a bamboo toothpick through the layers of banana leaf.
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Voila! Its done! Now repeat until everything is used up!
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Preparing the parcels for steaming…
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Time to open the presents!
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yum yum! Now its your turn to try it! Hope you guys enjoyed making and eating Penang Otak Otak as much as I did!

I am submitting this post to Malaysian Food Fest, Penang Month hosted by Alan of Travellingfoodies

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27 responses

  1. Reblogged this on global_food.

    June 3, 2013 at 7:37 pm

  2. Yum indeed! I have tried it before and it was tedious! and all my daun kedok already died on me because my back yard already under construction for new development!

    June 3, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Not so bad la Jeannie! Did you blog about it? Remember to post your blog link in the Penang MFF fb page! :)

      June 3, 2013 at 10:42 pm

  3. Chef and Sommelier

    Wow Alan! I’m very impressed with the series of step-by-step pics!

    Otak is one of my favourites too! Yours look truly authentic and yummy!

    June 4, 2013 at 10:47 am

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Thanks Alvin! Do give it a try :)

      June 6, 2013 at 1:20 am

  4. I have plenty of daun kadok at the backyard, if time allow, i will try to make it again since the last try!

    June 4, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      haha great! Do try and join in the fun for MFF Penang! :)

      June 6, 2013 at 1:20 am

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  8. nan

    Looks delicious, Is there any substitute for daun kaduk as I can’t find any in Australia?

    June 11, 2013 at 7:04 am

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      You can prepare it without daun kaduk actually. Just that it is the use of this leaf that lends the otak otak its unique flavours which precisely characterises the dish. Otherwise, the otak is very good on its own as well :)

      June 11, 2013 at 11:01 am

    • Penny Ng

      Try the Vietnamese grocery shops.

      June 13, 2013 at 5:54 pm

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  18. Hey there! I can’t say how glad I am to finally find a Singapore blog with detailed writing on cooking – and cooking Penang food no less, haha! I’ve been searching high and low for daun kadok – was wondering if you have any idea which market it can be found at? I’ve seen them as part of park and office landscaping but I’m a bit hesitant about plucking random leaves off park plants. :p

    April 22, 2014 at 10:20 am

    • Alan (travellingfoodies)

      Hi tsewei, thanks for visiting. :) Penang has a very rich culinary culture so attempting Penang cuisine is something which I had been wanting to do for quite a while then. About daun kaduk, you are right that they are commonly used as ground cover vegetation, which is incidentally where I got my initial plants which I grew from to a tidy bunch I have now in a pot. You can try getting some plants and growing them on your own for more sustainable use. Otherwise, I have seen them for sale at vegetable stalls at Tekka market. But the leaves are don’t look that good compared to those freshly harvested directly from plants. The flavour will probably be mellowed and less pungent and peppery.

      April 22, 2014 at 10:27 pm

  19. Awesome, thanks! Looks like I’ll have to make a trip to Tekka market after all – I’ve promised to make these for some friends this weekend. I’ve already tried making this once without the leaves – they’re delicious as it is, but I know, it’s not authentically Penang Nyonya without the daun kaduk! :)

    April 23, 2014 at 12:12 am

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