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Grilled Fish Wrapped in Banana Leaf from Street Food Asia by Luke Nguyen

8 Aug 2018 |

Street Food Asia by Luke Nguyen

Grilled Fish and Herbs, Wrapped in Banana Leaf | Ikan Bakar


One of my favourite places to eat in Kuala Lumpur is at the huge hawker-style restaurant called Ikan Bakar Pak Lang, in Kampung Baru. It’s got to be among the busiest restaurants in the entire city, with constant queues that never seem to dwindle. In the middle of the open-air dining room is a huge spread of trays filled with food that you help yourself to, buffet-style. While there are around 50 different dishes, including varieties of curries, salads, grills and fried foods, the dish I always gravitate to is their ikan bakar, or grilled fish. This is no ordinary grilled fish, however; first it’s slathered in a thick paste fragrant with lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, turmeric and chilli. Then it is wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked. As the fish grills, that fantastic paste fills the air with spicy fumes and the banana leaf scorches, giving off a lovely fragrance of its own and infusing the fish with wonderful flavours. In Malaysia they cook fish we might be unfamiliar with, but this dish translates perfectly to a backyard barbecue, using any white, firm-fleshed whole fish you prefer. They also use herbs that are only available in Asia, so I have suggested some more common herbs in this recipe.

Serves 4 –6 as part of a shared meal

1 large banana leaf

1 x 800 g (1 lb 12 oz) whole white, firm-fleshed fish such as barramundi, snapper or leatherjacket, scaled and gutted

½ teaspoon sea salt


4 red Asian shallots, chopped 2 garlic cloves, chopped

2 cm (¾ in) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2 cm (¾ in) piece of galangal, peeled and chopped

2 long red chillies, sliced

1 lemongrass stem, white part only, chopped

2 candlenuts

3 makrut (kaffir lime) leaves, finely sliced

½ teaspoon ground turmeric

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon liquid palm sugar or shaved palm sugar (jaggery)

1 tablespoon Tamarind Water

2 tablespoons peanut oil


4 tablespoons Tamarind Water

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon sugar

1 bird’s eye chilli, sliced

1 red Asian shallot, sliced


wing beans, sliced

Lebanese (short) cucumber, sliced mint leaves

steamed jasmine rice

Cut the banana leaf into a 25 x 40 cm (10 x 6 in) rectangle and soak in warm water for 5 minutes to soften. Pat dry with a clean tea towel (dish towel) and set aside.

To make the spice paste, put all the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until smooth.

Combine the tamarind chilli dipping sauce ingredients in a bowl and stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Lay the banana leaf lengthways, shiny side down, on your chopping board. Place the fish on top of the banana leaf, then score it on both sides and rub it with the sea salt. Now rub the sides and inside the cavity of the fish with the spice paste, coating it well.

Fold the leaf up, one side at a time, over the fish to form one big parcel.

Pin the edges together with toothpicks to secure.

Heat a chargrill pan or barbecue chargrill to medium–high. Place the parcel on the chargrill and cook for 15 minutes on each side.

Using scissors, cut the banana leaf open and serve the fish with the tamarind chilli dipping  sauce, wing beans, cucumber, mint leaves and steamed jasmine rice.

Photography by Alan Benson

Street Food Asia by Luke Nguyen is available now in good shops that sell books and online from Amazon and Waterstones (or your favourite online book seller)