Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Favorite Otak Otak
For anyone who is studying or familiar with the modern history of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman is a man who needs no introduction. Born into the royal family of the Kedah Sultanate, he became Malaysia’s first Prime Minister on 31st August 1957, when Malaya gained independence from the British colonial rule. The words “Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka! Merdeka!” still resonate and resound in the hearts of many older Malaysians who witnessed that historical moment, on the same day as today 56 years ago,
An interesting but lesser known trait of Tunku Abdul Rahman, is his passion for food. A true blue foodie of his time, Bapa Malaysia (Father of Malaysia) as he is fondly known as loved cooking as much as he loved eating. Tunku Abdul Rahman’s repertoire of signature dishes which he loves to eat and whip up for his dinner guests is far more extensive than what one would have imagined for a man of his time. Apart from traditional Northern Malaysian cuisine from Kedah where he was born and raised, he is equally at ease Thai dishes, possibly prepared and taught to him by his Thai mother. His studies at Cambridge University, UK in his younger days also exposed him to traditional British cooking where he learnt his “famous Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding”, a weekly staple on the dinner table at home . He is said to have particular fondness for Cantonese dishes as well! So here on Malaysia’s Hari Merdeka (Independence Day). I share with all of you one of the dishes featured in a cookbook compiled and collated by his niece, “Favourite Dishes From The Tunku’s Kitchen“. One of the more interesting recipes I’d read in this cookbook has to be his favorite Otak Otak.
There are close to 70 recipes featured in the cookbook, all of which are said to be Tunku Abdul Rahman’s favorites. I’m sure there are many more. There are quite a number of interesting recipes in this book, many of which are rather easy to prepare, i.e. very home-styled fare without all the fancy and frills but no less delicious I’m sure. Otak Otak struck me as being interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it is a variation of “otak otak kukus“, the steamed form of otak otak, said to have been influenced by “Hor Mok Pla“, a steamed Thai Fish Curry, compared to the “otak otak panggang” (grilled) version which is favoured in the south of Malaysia, Singapore and some parts of Indonesia. The most famous version is of course Penang Otak Otak, but I would have imagined that it would be commonly adapted and adopted into the regional cuisines from the northern states of Peninsula Malaysia as well.
Apart from the use of basic ingredients, Tunku Abdul Rahman’s favorite Otak Otak differs from the classic Penang Otak Otak in several aspects, The first thing that caught my attention was the use of daun mengkudu. More commonly known as “Noni” for the juice extracted from the fruits, the leaves of Morinda citrifolia is lesser used in cooking. In fact, this is the first recipe that I’d encountered so far that uses daun mengkudu, all thanks to Tunku. Despite its rarity in cuisine, it is a very commonly cultivated plant in Singapore. One would find it growing unattended in the older housing estates as well as private residential areas. So obtaining the leaves isn’t much of a difficulty. One just needs to know where to look.
The plant is most easily discernible by its fruit. It is said to be edible despite its unpleasant taste and odour that reminds of aged cheese and vomit.
That said, the flowers never fail to attract ants. So I’m guessing that there must be something intrinsically good about it. Nature knows best…
Apart from daun mengkudu, two other types of leaves are used in the recipe, daun limau purut (kaffir lime leaves) and daun kaduk (wild pointed pepper leaves) are also found in Penang Otak Otak. And of course traditionally, daun pisang (banana leaves) are used as a food wrap for the Otak Otak before steaming.
Rempah ingredients are pretty standard as well with bawang merah (shallots), serai (lemongrass), lengkuas (galangal root), halia (ginger root) soaked cili kering (dried chilies) and kunyit hidup (tumeric root). Another difference in this recipe which one would be quick to observe compared to Penang Otak Otak is the lack of belacan.
The final concoction before everything is properly mixed. The mixture was set to marinate for 4-6 hours (preferably overnight) for the flavours to permeate into every bit of fish.
The method of “bungkus” (wrapping) the otak otak in banana leaves is pretty much the same as that of Penang Otak Otak. Details on the wrapping technique can be seen here.
And this is what a finished otak otak would look like. I’d added one more narrow strip of banana leaf that goes around the package
Instead of wrapping, the paste could also be steamed in a shallow dish which has been laid with daun kaduk. Strips of boiled daun mengkudu are sprawled over the surface for contrast. This saves one the hassle of wrapping!
Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Favorite “Otak-Otak Ikan Kurau atau Isi Ikan” Recipe, adapted from “Favourite Dishes from The Tunku’s Kitchen”
(makes 8-10 banana leaf wrapped parcels)
4 stalks batang serai (lemongrass), use lower white portions only finely sliced
4-cm knob lengkuas (galangal root), peeled and finely sliced
2-cm knob halia (ginger), peeled and finely sliced
4-cm knob kunyit hidup (tumeric root), peeled and finely sliced
50g cili kering (dried chillies), soaked in hot water (seeds can be removed for less heat)
10 bawang merah (shallots), peeled and finely sliced
500 g ikan kurau (threadfin) fillet, cut into thin slices (can be replaced by any meaty white fish)
10 daun mengkudu (Morinda) leaves, boiled in water until it turns really dark, sliced lengthwise into two strips with central vein removed.
20 daun kaduk (pointed pepper) leaves
5 daun limau purut (kaffir lime) leaves, julienned finely into very thin strips with central vein removed
200 ml thick santan (coconut milk), one small tetrapak
2 egg yolks, beaten slightly
Salt, adjust to taste
Sugar, adjust to taste
banana leaves for wrapping (optional), cut into 180x 20 cm pieces, rinsed and wilted in boiling water to soften
Pound or blend all the rempah ingredients until a fine paste is obtained.
In a large bowl, place all the ingredients except daun kaduk and blanched daun mengkudu. Mix well to incorporate. Leave in fridge for 4-6 hours to marinate.
To wrap, lay with 2 pieces of daun kaduk on a piece of banana leaf which has been cut to size, followed by a generous tbsp of otak otak mixture.
Place 2 strips of blanched daun mengkudu over it and proceed to spread another generous tbsp of otak otak mixture of it.
Wrap as how it is done for Penang Otak Otak. Fasten with toothpicks. For wrapping technique, see here.
Repeat until all the ingredients and banana leaves are used up.
Steam under medium-high heat for 20 min.
Serve immediately as a snack or with rice.
To all my Malaysian friends and friends in Malaysia, Selamat Hari Merdeka!!!