Pais Ikan or grilled fish with spiced coconut paste is one of my first and favourite dishes that I made whilst living in Cork. It seems like it was only yesterday that I left my family and loved ones behind and settled in a new and foreign country with a culture that is totally different than what I’m used to back home in Malaysia.
Nevertheless, it was very thrilling for a girl like me, who comes from a very modest Muslim family. I used to imagine walking along the quiet pavements on Sunday mornings, heading towards the nearest farmer markets, picking out the freshest produce and making delicious local cuisine. But, I forgot one small thing. I am Malaysian. There’s quite a popular saying among Malaysians that refers specifically to this problem. The phenomenon called ‘Perut Melayu’ or the ‘Malay Taste’.
You Can’t Run Away from ‘Perut Melayu’
‘Perut Melayu’ basically refers to the combined taste preference for a sweet, spicy and sour combination that predominantly can be experienced when eating Nusantara cuisine. How do you know if you truly have that ‘Perut Melayu’? Well, do you crave hot fluffy rice, curry or sambal paired with some bittersweet Malaysian herbs? If just reading that description makes you suddenly gulp hard, congratulations! You have a ‘Perut Melayu’!
Initially, I did enjoy trying out new food, eating freshly made fish and chips every other day or so but soon, I wanted something more spicy, more flavourful. So, I called up my mama back home and asked her for the simplest, easiest recipe that she has or, better yet, something made from ingredients that can be readily found here in Cork. When mama suggested pais ikan, I was not so sure. Honestly, I was expecting something more complex and wholesome, like nasi lemak but mama told me to give it a try. Boy, I’m glad I did!
Fresh and fragrant, the spiced coconut paste is really the star of the dish. If you do not make this right, you won’t be able to enjoy it. Trust me, I learned this the hard way. Besides the paste, the type of fish used, makes a big difference as well. I find Mackerel makes the best pais. It’s high fat content makes the sweet smokiness of the fish more intense and aromatic.
- 1 Mackerel, cut in the middle and cleaned
- 5-6 keffir lime leaves, julienned
- 2 cups of desiccated coconut
- 2 medium-size onions
- 10 stalks bird’s eye chilies
- 2 tablespoons of chili paste
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1 inch turmeric root, sliced thinly
- 3 stalks of lemongrass, sliced thinly
- 1-2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon of tamarind water
- Salt and sugar to taste
- 3 tablespoons of coconut milk, optional
- A few banana leaves, seared to ensure banana leaves don’t tear upon wrapping
- Some oil
- Blend the desiccated coconut, onions, bird’s eye chilies, onions, chili paste, garlic, turmeric root, lemongrass, eggs, tamarind water and coconut milk till a smooth paste is formed.
- Pour the blended paste into a small bowl. Using a spoon, stuffed the fish with the spice paste. If there’s excess, spread it evenly arounf the fish. This will give more flavour to the fish and enhanced the smokiness of the flesh.
- Using a brush, coat the banana leaves with some oil and place the stuffed fish in the middle. Sprinkle the keffir lime leaves. Wrap the fish, burrito-like, and grilled on a wide pan for 10-15 minutes or until the fish is fully cooked. Grill the fish on medium high flame.
Serve with Rice and Sambal
This dish can be spicy, so try balancing it out by adding more coconut milk and reducing the amount of bird’s eye chili used. Pais Ikan tastes best when it packs a punch but don’t chew off more that you can bite, if you know what I mean. Pais Ikan is such a traditional Malay dish but, unfortunately, not many people have tried it. Of all the Malay dishes, I truly believe that Pais Ikan is one of the most underrated Malay dishes that we should talk more about.
I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I do and if you want more delicious, easy Malay cuisine that you are interested to learn or try, you can follow me at @agakagakfoodnetwork. For more traditional Malaysian recipes, do follow Butterkicap on both their Instagram and Facebook profiles. You won’t regret it!