Hello Everyone! Tonight’s recipe is actually also a national fish dish in East Timor. As we’ve covered back in March when we travelled through East Timor on our Flavours of Southeast Asia journey, the country was invaded and colonised by Indonesia after they gained their independence from Portugal. Therefore a lot of their cuisine is also inspired by Indonesian culture.
I’ve actually never had Ikan Pepes before; I guess the closest I’ve had that’s similar to this dish is Ikan Bakar, which in English literally means ‘burn fish’. The main difference between the two is how the banana leaves are used.
Pepes is an Indonesian cooking method using banana leaves as a food wrapping and secured with a fastener made from the central ribs of a coconut leaf (known as lidi seumat). The banana leaf package containing the food is then steamed or grilled over charcoal. Bakar on the other hand is a charcoal-grilling method where sometimes a sheet of banana leaf placed between the food and grill to prevent it from sticking to the grill and breaking into pieces.
Ikan Pepes is made by generously smothering the fish in a spice mixture. The mixture may vary among regions and places, but usually consists of a combination of shallots, garlic, chillies, coriander, tamarind paste, candlenuts, turmeric, galangal, and salt; all pounded together using a mortar and pestle, or blitzed in a food processor to create a paste. The fish is then wrapped in banana leaves to not only protect the fish from excessive charring, but also to add a subtle touch of fragrance to the dish as a whole. The fish is then typically eaten with rice for a complete meal.
You can use any type of fish for this dish as you prefer, such as snapper, perch, bream, or tilapia, and you may also opt to use fish fillets rather than cooking with a whole fish especially for those who don’t like struggling with fish bones. Likewise, while the method of pepes is commonly used to prepare fish, other ingredients such as shrimp, squid, chicken, beef, tofu, tempeh, mushrooms, or other vegetables are also available to be prepared using this method.
PREP TIME 15 MINS | COOKING TIME 25 MINS | SERVES 4-6
- 2 red snappers (about 500g each in weight), descaled, gutted, and cleaned
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to season
For the spice mixture
- 3 red chillies, chopped
- 2-3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 small red onion, roughly chopped
- 1 stalk lemongrass (white part only), finely chopped
- 1 thumb-sized turmeric, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 tbsp raw peanuts
- 7 cherry tomatoes*, halved
- 1 tsp shrimp paste
- 1 tbsp coconut sugar
- 1 tbsp tamarind paste
- Salt, to taste
- Fresh banana leaves
- Lemon wedges
- Red chillies, chopped
- Spring onion (green parts), chopped
*Or use one small tomato and roughly chop. I used cherry tomatoes because I had some lying around that were getting soft.
- Spice Mixture: Using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic, onion, lemongrass, turmeric, and peanuts together until it forms into a rough paste. Add the tomatoes and continue to pound until they start to break down.
- Add in the shrimp paste, coconut sugar, tamarind paste, and season with salt. Use a spoon to mix them all together until well combined.
If using a food processor, add all the ingredients together and blend into a rough paste.
- Ikan Pepes: Place the prepared fish, that has been seasoned with a touch of salt and freshly ground black pepper, on top of a piece of banana leaf, on top of a piece of aluminium foil.
- Stuff the cavity of the snapper fish with the green parts of the lemongrass and white part of the spring onion. This is optional as I didn’t want to put these parts to waste so I decided to use them in the dish as well.
- Generously cover both sides of the fish with the spice mixture and enclose it in the banana leaf, and aluminium foil.
- Place the fish over a grill and cook on medium-high heat for 15 minutes on one side, and 10 minutes on the other; a total of 25 minutes, or until cooked through depending on the size of your fish or method of cooking.
- Once done, remove from the grill and transfer to a serving plate. Garnish with some spring onions, extra chillies, and lemon wedges on the side. Serve immediately while hot with rice. Enjoy!
– Ally xx