Ikan bakar is a great dish to enjoy, whether as an appetiser or as a main course.
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Ikan bakar, which literally means 'burnt fish' in Malay, is a popular dish in Malaysia. Popular amongst all the local races, ikan bakar can often be found in most food courts and eateries all over the country. It is a simple dish that does not require sophisticated cooking tools to make. The two main things that make each dish from the many different ikan bakar stalls unique is the chilli paste that is used to marinate the fish AND the experience of cooking fish over charcoal fire.
The chilli paste used as marinade may differ from one stall to another, as it could be based on personal preference or even a secret family recipe. The basic recipe for the marinade calls for ingredients like turmeric powder, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, shallots and of course, dried chilli. Toasted belacan or shrimp paste is also added into the mix, though it is optional as not everyone appreciates its taste. All these items are blended together and spread lavishly on the fish before it is wrapped with banana leaves. The types of fishes that are favoured by traders here are stingray, barramundi (also known locally as siakap), mackerel and tilapia. Occasionally one might be able to find other types of fishes like the American shad, or locally known as ikan terubok. Ikan bakar is always served with a condiment made out of tamarind juice, light soy sauce, sugar, chopped onions and sliced chillies. The sourish and spicy condiment complements the taste of the fish and the chilli paste, and adds more zing to it compared to eating the ikan bakar as is. The banana leave adds a smoky flavour to the fish when it is cooked.
Most traders these days offer a variety of seafood to their customers. Other than the normal fare of fishes, customers can also have grilled squid, cockles as well as clams. Many stalls in food courts allow customers to mix and match the seafood of their preference. As time is of the essence for these traders, the seafood is packed into aluminum foil and folded to resemble a packet, where it is placed on a hot griddle and grilled until it is cooked. The juices are preserved, making the meat inside the packet moist and fresh when it is opened. There are also traders who prefer to barbeque the marinated fish without the banana leaf, allowing the trader to grill the fish without burning parts of it. It is important that the taste of the spices in the chilli paste balances out perfectly, because if one of the spices overpowers the rest, it will definitely mar the taste. It is also important to ensure that the fish still retains its moisture after being grilled, the one factor that many traders do not pay heed when preparing their ikan bakar. Together with the right condiments, it becomes a winning dish that leaves people wanting more.