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Malaysian otak otak fish cakes recipe

Malaysian otak otak fish cakes recipe

Otak otak are Malaysian fish cakes wrapped in banana leaves, which we saw being sold as snacks throughout hawker stalls in Malaysia:

Otak otak at Kuala Lumpur market

Otak otak sold in markets across Malaysia. This one was in Kuala Lumpur

Otak means ‘brains’ in Malay and the name of the dish derives from the idea that it resembles, er, brains (!)

We took a cooking class with celebrity Chef Annuar Hassan in Langkawi as part of our stay at Ambong Ambong.

Galangal is one of the key ingredients used, popular throughout Southeast Asian recipes. It is also known as blue ginger and is much larger than normal fresh ginger, with a stronger aroma.

Ginger and galangal

Sebastien admiring fresh ginger on the left and larger galangal on the right

Ingredients for the otak otak paste

  • 2 large onions peeled
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 1 stalk lemongrass sliced
  • thumb sized piece of fresh ginger
  • thumb sized piece of fresh galangal (if can find or use more ginger)
  • one inch of fresh turmeric (alternative is 1 teaspoon of dried turmeric)
  • 200ml water

Remaining ingredients for Malaysian otak otak

  • 3 tablespoons chilli paste to thicken
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 250g of white fish chopped finely like barracuda, sea bass, cod or even salmon
  • 120ml coconut milk
  • 90ml tamarind juice
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 1 kaffir lime leaf sliced
  • 2 Asian basil leaves (stronger than normal basil)
  • 2 egg yolks
  • banana leaves for folding if using, or small oven cooking bowls
  • 1 teaspoon of ground palm sugar (the sap from new branches of coconut leaves):
Palm sugar chunks

Chunks of palm sugar

How to make Malaysian otak otak

1. Chop up the ingredients for the paste (onions, garlic, ginger, galangal, lemongrass and turmeric) and place in a food processor with 200ml water.

2. Heat up 4 tablespoons of veg oil in a pan.

3. Put the paste in the pan, mix in the 3 tablespoons of chilli paste and cook on medium heat, uncovered for around 20 minutes, or until the oil breaks: ie when the oil comes to the surface.

Chilli paste added to the otak otak mixture

Chilli paste added to the otak otak mixture

4. Take a bunch of fresh tamarind and squeeze the fruit in a bowl of water. Leave to stand for 10 minutes, strain and add 90ml of the juice into the pan.

5. Mix in 120ml of coconut milk, a pinch of salt and 1 teaspoon of ground palm sugar and keep cooking on a medium heat, uncovered for around 20 minutes, or until the mixture thickens and becomes a paste.

6. Mix into the mixture 1 sliced kafir leaf and 2 sliced Asian basil leaves.

7. Mix the fish with the 2 egg yolks in a separate plate and slowly add enough otak otak mixture to the fish, but not all of it: enough so it retains a solid consistency and doesn’t become too liquid.

Otak otak mixture with the fish added

Sebastien with the otak otak mixture once the fish has been mixed in

8a. Prepare banana leaves (if using) by places both sides on an open flame for a few seconds to toughen them. Then places a tablespoon of paste in each leaf, fold it up and then steam them for 10 minutes.

Otak otak mixture rolled in banana leaves

Sebastien rolling the otak otak mixture in banana leaves


8b. Places the paste into small cooking bowls and grill in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius for around 20 minutes. Don’t cover the bowls because it’s nice to have a burnt layer on top.

Serve the otak otak with an optional dipping salsa:

1. Use 1 chopped tomato (insides removed) and half a cucumber (insides and skin removed).

2. Add 1 chopped mango, 1 teaspoon of turmeric (or dried), 1 kaffir lime leaf, 1 basil leaf, a bunch of chopped coriander leaves, sliced lemongrass, 1 tablespoon of vinegar, 1 teaspoon of palm sugar and a pinch of salt.

Otak otak served with salsa sauce and wine

Otak otak served with a tasty salsa dipping sauce and a fresh glass of white wine of course!

For more about our adventures through Malaysia, please check out our Malaysia travel video:

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Sebastien is the co-founder, editor and author of He is a tech geek, a total travel nerd and a food enthusiast. He spends the majority of his time planning Nomadic Boys' travels meticulously right down to the minute details. Sebastien has travelled to over 80 countries with his partner in crime and the love of his life, Stefan. He regularly shares his expertise of what it’s like travelling as a gay couple both on Nomadic Boys and on prominent publications ranging from Pink News, Matador, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian and many more. Originally from France, Sebastien moved to London in the early 2000s where he pursued a career as a computer programmer for Thompson Reuters and Bloomberg. He subsequently left it all to explore his passion for travelling around the world with Stefan to hand, and thus Nomadic Boys was born.

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