Grilled Fish with Sambal in Banana Leaves

by Megg

When I’m surrounded by the dreary doldrums of winter, I find myself craving color and spice. Well, I suppose I’m always craving those things, but when it’s so cold I can’t feel my face, it seems a bit more urgent.  Ergo, when I stumbled upon a recipe that satisfied both demands, I could only assume it was meant to be.  In fact, it was meant to be dinner. That night. No exceptions.
The recipe, which I found on the hunger-inducing Rasa Malaysia, was for a classic Malaysian dish known as ikan bakar or ikan panggang: fish that’s wrapped in banana leaves and grilled.  My first run-in with banana leaves happened when I was making tamales from scratch.  I used banana leaves for the pork tamales and the more popular corn husks for the other varieties.  The ones encased in banana leaves were infused with a distinct earthy flavor that I absolutely adored.  I couldn’t wait to try it in this fish dish!  The other major component of this recipe is freshly made sambal, a chili-based condiment that’s a staple in Malaysian and other Southeastern Asian cuisines.  If that combination doesn’t scream color and spice, I don’t know what does! 


I used a whole fish (red snapper) when making this recipe.  It was my first time cooking with an entire fish, so I was so grateful when the kind man at the seafood counter cleaned and scaled it for me.  The recipe could be made with filleted fish too, although you may need to adjust the cooking time. The dish was rather simple to make considering the complexity of flavors, and the sambal could be made ahead of time to save time.  It’s grilled on the stovetop, which is convenient for the winter months, although you could make it on a gas or charcoal grill (again, if you do so, please adjust the cooking times accordingly).  I served the fish over coconut basmati rice, which I make by simply replacing about 3/4 of the water with coconut milk when making the rice in a rice cooker.
The fish with the sambal was delicious, but the banana leaves really make the dish.  You can likely find them in the frozen section of an Asian grocery store, although the place near me (which is mostly Korean) didn’t have them.  Luckily I know that the Latin market down the street from me carries them, also frozen, for about $1.50 a pack.
This recipe also calls for belacan, a Malaysian shrimp paste.  Being rather unfamiliar with Malaysian food, I had to look this up.  Turns out it’s a dried paste, generally formed into a big block.  I couldn’t find this near me either, but I had some jarred Thai shrimp paste on hand.  Someday I’ll try this with the belacan when I can get my hands on it, but the Thai paste seemed to work just fine. 


Grilled Fish and Sambal in Banana Leaves
(adapted from Rasa Malaysia)
Serves 2
  • 1 lb. red snapper or other firm white fish, cleaned and scaled
  • 2-3 banana leaves, well-rinsed and patted dry
  • Cooking oil
For Sambal:
  • 8-10 fresh red chilies (such as red jalapeños), seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon toasted belacan (Malaysian shrimp paste)
  • 2 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • Juice of 1/2 lime
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons sugar (preferably palm sugar)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
For Shallot Condiment:
  • 3 tablespoons tamarind pulp
  • 3 fresh red chilies (such as red jalapeños), seeded and finely chopped
  • 3 bird’s eye chilies, seeded and chopped (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon toasted belacan
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar (preferably palm sugar)
  • Salt to taste
1. First, make the sambal: In a food processor or blender, mix chilies, belacan, shallots, and lemongrass.  Blend until you have a smooth paste.  Heat a wok over medium-high heat and slowly add the sambal paste.  Stir-fry the paste until the oil begins to separate, stirring frequently, about 1-2 minutes.  Transfer the paste to a bowl and season with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and salt.  Stir, taste, and add more salt or sugar if needed.  Set aside.
2. Next, make the shallot condiment: Soak the tamarind pulp in about 1/2 cup water for 15 minutes.  Meanwhile, blend the chilies and belacan in a blender or food processor until smooth; transfer to a bowl. Extract the juice from the tamarind by straining out the pulp, and add the juice to the chili mixture.  Add shallots, sugar, and salt and stir well.  Set aside.

3.  Grease a large, flat pan (such as a long, cast-iron griddle) with cooking oil and heat the pan at medium-high.  Layer 2-3 sheets of banana leaves on the pan.  Evenly coat the leaves with a tablespoon of oil, then place the fish upon the leaves.  Spread about 3 tablespoons of sambal over the fish, coating it thoroughly.  Cover the pan tightly (if you’re using a griddle like I did, use a metal roasting dish or something similar to cover the fish.. just make sure you have a fairly tight seal to trap in the heat).  Cook for 8 minutes, then flip the fish over.  Spread 3 more tablespoons of sambal on this side, recover, and cook for another 8 minutes or until the fish is cooked through.

4. You can de-bone the fish before serving, or plate it up and remove the bones as you eat.  Serve immediately with any leftover sambal.  Spoon the shallot condiment over the fish and enjoy with rice.
Needless to say, this dish was indeed colorful and had a nice, but not overpowering, heat.  Hope this helps you warm up, as it did for me! 

  • Bentobird

    Amazing and just bursting with tantalizing flavors! Beautiful post, impressive cooking!

  • Megg

    Thanks Jenn! I've never made a Rasa Malaysia recipe I didn't like!

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