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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ikan Bakar (Grilled Fish) 烧鱼

Arghhh, cravings cravings cravings!!! The first time I got all too ambitious and decided to make an attempt at this, it was this craving alert that pushed me right into this. I was all motivated, at least good enough to get me to the kickoff lol. A bout of excitement then started but that was soon followed by some disappointments and later a little frustration along the way, and at some points it was all three in one. The craving hits so hard you know you really would do anything to satisfy it even if it doesn't promise much. With that impulsive decision of mine, I spent hours in the kitchen that day trying to create and re create, adding a bit of this and a bit of that and decided on a bit more of this and a bit more of that all in the hope to get the right hit to the basic sambal because this is simply just how it works - no sambal and there won't be a foundation to this and so there'll be no ikan bakar! Oh NOOO!

My kitchen was quickly turning into a food lab. This was a picture of desperation in reality. Frustrated that this is one of the many things that I have never heard or seen served anywhere in the many Asian restaurants here where we lived, not even a version close enough to extinguish this craving heat in me; and even more so that of all things I had to crave for something so challenging and impossible to make my own. One thing leading to another, the hours spent experimenting on it was a real test against the little patience of mine, so much so that I was very close to the verge of just giving up and trusting myself to handle the craving on its own over time. But hey! Things took a turn for the better at a point and the sambal was actually turning out to be good if not superb. And I finally got my parcel of a sea bass fish with squids and okras wrapped in banana leaves grilling away to perfection a while later. One that came packed with bundles of joy and satisfaction at last to hubby and especially myself, and also to our group of friends who we shared this with - the few who are just like hubby and I, grew up surrounded by this good and gracious ikan bakar, a classic favorite in Malaysia. 

Amazingly spicy and savory in taste, this is a parcel opening to reveal an elegant piece of juicy seafood treasure contained within daubed generously with the specially concocted homemade sambal. This time the same craving attacked, I was way calmer than I was before. The highlight to this very episode of mine - the stingray! My very personal history with ikan bakar started with exactly this, one that I have never thought possible of finding here. Slightly better self prepared with the little experience I have in hand this time around, this is a masterpiece so heavenly I have never imagined myself making within the very comfort zone of mine here at home. Add in squids or clams as you like, they'll make just as awesome a parcel with or without. As the name suggests, this is always best grilled to give the fish wrapped in the banana leaves a uniquely charred characteristic and the aroma as they get caramelized on the whole. But I must say that to fire up the grill outdoor in this chilly weather on the other hand did not look that appealing to me. So oven to the rescue! And worry not about the result - it's finger licking good all the same lol. The only setback? The dipping sauces that I have yet to venture into still. The cincalok and the one loaded with shallots and chilies? Argh there goes me salivating again just picturing them lol. Anyone with some good recipes to spare me pleaasse?

Ikan Bakar (Grilled Fish) 烧鱼
Serves 3-4
One 1½lb whole fish (stingray, bass, snapper, kembung, or any others), cleaned
12 okras, sliced into 1/2" pieces slantingly (or have it substituted with green beans or winged beans or a mixture of all)
2 large sheets of banana leaves (rinsed and wiped clean with a paper towel)
4½ tbsps cooking oil and a little more to lightly oil the banana leaves
salt and pepper for marinating fish

Sambal paste
juice from 1/4 lime
1/4 tsp salt
2½ tsps sugar
2 tsps fish sauce
1 tbsp Thai sweet chili sauce
1 tbsp seedless tamarind pulp, mixed with 1 tbsp water then lightly squeezed retaining just the juice, pulp discarded

to be blended together into a smooth chili paste 
8 shallots, peeled and halved
4 cloves garlic, peeled  and the hard ends trimmed
3 stalks lemongrass (bottom 4" only), tough outer layer removed, cut into smaller pieces 
1½ tbsp toasted shrimp paste (belacan)
5 red birds eye chilies, deseeded
8 to 10 dried red chilies (adjust to personal spice tolerance), soaked to soften then cut into halves to briefly remove the seeds
1 tbsp sambal oelek (or other hot chili with garlic)

1. Clean the fish thoroughly. Make two or three slits across each side of the fish if it's a big one. Pat dry with paper towels and marinate lightly with salt and white pepper powder all around the fish. Let rest on a plate lined with a paper towel and refrigerate until cooking time.
2. Heat up the skillet with 4 tbsps of cooking oil over high heat. Add in the blended chili paste and turn the heat down to medium-high. Let fry until aromatic, turning every now and then. Do not rush things through, they take time to be smelling all fragrant and turning into a brownish hue indicating that it is ready. It took me about half an hour to get them ready.
3. Add in the rest of the seasoning for the sambal paste into the skillet. Add in more salt or sugar to taste and stir well. Once the sambal tastes fine, remove from heat and set aside to let cool.

4. Set the oven to preheat at 350°F. Meanwhile in the same skillet, add in the remaining cooking oil over high heat. Once heated, add in the minced garlic and stir fry until aromatic. Bring in the sliced okras and stir until about 70% done. Over time the okra will be tinted with the little red color left from making the sambal paste earlier on. Dish out and set aside.
5. Lay a sheet of banana leaf on one half of a big sheet of heavy duty aluminium foil. Lightly grease with a little cooking oil. 
6. Spread half (more or less to preference) of the sambal paste across the banana sheet. Have the fish rested on this layer of sambal paste, and spread the remaining sambal paste all over the fish.
7. Arrange the okra on both sides of the fish. Top the fish with the other sheet of lightly greased banana leaf and fold the aluminium foil over. Pleat in all sides neatly and securely to make a parcel.
8. Have the fish grilled away in the preheated oven for 25 minutes. 
9. Be extra careful with the steam venting out as you open the parcel up at the end of it. Test for doneness with a fork inserted into the part with the thickest flesh. If it appears flaky and the fork comes out clean, the fish is ready. Cover and let cook for another 3 to 5 minutes otherwise. Serve hot.

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