My mom cooked Ikan Bakar last week, otherwise known as Malaysian style grilled fish. You basically take a whole fish, smother it with spices, place it on a banana leaf, and grill it over a charcoal fire. Instead of starting a camp fire on the kitchen counter, Mom placed the fish on a banana leaf and fried it in a wok. She flavored the fish with a generous portion of turmeric powder, threw in some ground ginger & lemon grass, and finally topped it off with a bit of other spices for seasoning.
But the secret to this dish isn't on the main plate. As with many Malaysian delicacies, the secret sits inconspicuously in the tiny dish on the side. No, this isn't ketchup. It's a homemade, spicy, Malaysian relish! This spicy relish can take as much work to prepare as the main dish, but that extra kick is worth the effort.
Let's start with what you'll need to make the relish for your grilled fish:
A bunch of baby green and/or red chili (the spicy ones!), which we call “chili padi” in Malaysia. The name also refers to women with a small physique and a feisty personality. I know a few I won't name...
Bunga Kantan, or Torch Ginger Flower. A beautiful pink flower with a wonderful aroma and flavour - the simple, but essential ingredient used to make Penang Laksa.
4 - 6 shallots
- 1 teaspoon of brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon of tamarind paste/ juice
- 1/3 cup of warm water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of belacan*
- 2 cloves of chopped garlic
- 1 squeeze of fresh lime juice (or as much as you like)
1. Toast the belacan for about 3 to 4 minutes in a hot pan or a toaster oven . Let it cool.
2. Mix the tamarind paste with 1/3 cup of warm water, strain and discard seeds.
3. Slice the green chili, shallots & bunga kantan into small pieces.
4. Add all the ingredients together and squeeze in some fresh lime juice for the final touch.
*Belacan is a fermented, ground shrimp paste. You might want to hold your nose if this is the first time you are using it, but don't fret, the smell mellows out after cooking and leaves behind an indescribable layer of richness to the mixture. It is a crucial element in most spicy, homemade Malaysian dips.