Wednesday, June 01, 2011
Spicy Skate Wrapped in Grilled Banana Leaves (Ikan Panggang)
Just take one bite of this fish and you will experience an explosion of exotic flavors and spices that will transport you to the tropical beaches of Malaysia. You can almost picture yourself sitting under the cool shade of a coconut tree as the ocean breeze gently blows grains of sand on your face...(ok, maybe a little over dramatic)
In Malaysia, this dish is usually prepared with skate, but you can also use any sort of fish that flakes easily like red snapper or tilapia. Skate is actually a cousin of the sting ray and may not be readily available in local supermarkets due to overfishing. It was my first time cooking with skate, and I was surprised at how well it goes with the spices and how soft and tasty it is. The fish is first smothered with sambal, a spicy Malaysian/Indonesian condiment which is a fragrant blend of almost a dozen ingredients including shallots, garlic, lemongrass, red chilies and belacan - a funky-smelling salty paste made of fermented shrimp that's commonly used as a cooking ingredient in Southeast Asia. The fish is then wrapped in banana leaves and placed on the barbecue until the leaves are charred. The grilled banana leaves impart an additional layer of flavor and perfumes the fish as it steams with the sambal inside the leaves.
Some of the ingredients used are not the typical items you would find in your pantry, but they are available in most asian supermarkets, including the belacan and even the banana leaves. The banana leaves are imported from Thailand or the Philipines and they come frozen. Belacan may be harder to find, but you'll most likely find it in the Thai food section, under a different name (don't know what the Thai term is for belacan).
First, prepare the sambal. Roughly chop the shallots, garlic, lemongrass and galangal and then put them in a blender along with the chilies, tamarind paste, sugar, salt, belacan and turmeric powder. Blend into a smooth paste. Then heat up the oil and fry the paste on medium-low heat, stirring continuously until the paste thickens and turns a dark reddish-brown colour. Be careful not to burn the paste; you want to fry the paste slowly on a low heat until the vegetables caramelize.
Give the sambal a taste. Add a little more salt if it's not seasoned enough. The belacan may give the sambal a slight bitter taste - if you find that it's a little too bitter, add a little more sugar to offset the bitterness. The sambal should be spicy, salty and sweet, with a slight tang from the tamarind paste.
Now, to prepare the skate, first give it a rinse and then pat it dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt on both sides of the fish. Overlap 2 pieces of banana leaf so that they form a cross and place the fish in the center. Smear the fish on both sides with the sambal. Drizzle with the chili oil and squeeze the juice from half a lime over the fish. Then bring the ends of the leaves over and secure the wrap with 2 pieces of string.
Fire up your barbecue and turn the heat down to medium-low before putting the wrap on. Tip: use a grill topper or a grill basket to prevent the burnt banana leaves from sticking or falling through the grids. You can also serve the wrapped fish on the grill topper/basket without having to transfer to a serving platter.
Cook the fish for 10-15 minutes with the lid down, flipping the wrap once halfway through cooking.
Once done, bring the wrapped fish to the table and open up the leaves. Serve with steamed rice that's been flavoured with coconut milk, or just plain steamed rice, alongside a few lime wedges.