Otak-otak, also known as otah,1 is a dish of Malay and Peranakan origins.2 It is a blend of raw fish, chopped onions, coconut milk, herbs and spices bound together with egg.3 The puree is usually wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over an open charcoal fire or in the oven.4 The dish can also be prepared by steaming the wrapped puree in a wok filled with boiling water till the fish is fully cooked.5 Otak-otak is commonly served as an accompaniment to a meal of nasi lemak.6

In Singapore, otak-otak, a savoury snack, is typically made from Spanish mackerel, or ikan tenggiri. The fish is pureed into a kind of mousse or quiche. The texture of the fish paste is soft and smooth, almost like a custard because of the coconut milk.7 Its unique flavour is found in its spicy rempah, a Malay term referring to the spices and seasoning.8 The rempah is traditionally made of chillies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, turmeric, candle nuts (or buah keras in Malay) and shrimp paste.9 Traditionally, the dish is prepared by pounding all the ingredients using a mortar and pestle before frying.10 Morsels of fish paste are then wrapped in banana leaves, the fragrant aroma of the leaves grilling under charcoal adding to the flavour of the otak-otak.11 Besides accompanying other dishes, the otak-otak can also be eaten on its own.12

Otak-otak is usually wrapped flat in either coconut leaves or banana leaves and grilled in the oven or fire.13 However, Penang-style otak-otak is wrapped into a triangle with a rectangular base and steamed.14 Recent adaptations of the dish include otak-otak as bun and puff stuffing or as a burger patty.15 Nowadays, otak-otak can be found in supermarkets and sold as a frozen food item.16


Suchitthra Vasu

1. “Otah Find Surprises,” Straits Times, 15 August 1999, 11; Patrick Wong, “Simply Yummy!New Paper, 21 July 2000, 56. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Eveline Gan, “Foodnotes,” Today, 14 May 2007, 28; Audrey Phoon, “Cream of the Crop,” Business Times, 6 February 2010, 6–7 (From NewspaperSG); Sylvia Tan, Singapore Heritage Food: Yesterday’s Recipes for Today’s Cook (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2014), 120 (Call no. RSING 641.595957 TAN); Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled: Decoding 25 Favourite Dishes (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2015), 81. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 SIN)
3. Terry Tan, Nonya Cooking: The Easy Way (Singapore: Times Book International, 1996), 34. (Call no. RSING 641.5929505957 TAN)
4. “It’s a Wrap,” The Peranakan Association Newsletter no. 1 (July–September 2009), 18. (Call no. RSING 305.895105957 PAN); Tan, Nonya Cooking: The Easy Way, 34.
5. Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, “Recipe: Otah,” The Atlantic (4 November 2009).
6. Gan, “Foodnotes”; Phoon, “Cream of the Crop”; Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled, 81.
7. Sylvia Tan, “Otak-Otak Adds Spice to an Informal Buffet,” Straits Times, 20 August 1995, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
8. The Latest Malay-English Dictionary (Singapore: Intellectual Pub., 1991), 232. (Call no. RSING 499.230321 LAT)
9. Lee Chin Koon, The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook Volume 1 (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd, 2003), 140. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 LEE)
10. Classic Peranakan Cooking (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2010), 36. (Call no. RSING 641.59595 CLA)
11. “It’s a Wrap” 18; Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled, 81.
12. Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled, 81.
13. Ong Jin Teong, Nonya Heritage Kitchen: Origins, Utensils and Recipes (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2016), 113. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 ONG); Rosaline Soon, Grandmother’s Recipes: Tales from Two Peranakan Kitchens (Singapore: R. Soon, 2006), 113. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 SOO)
14. Soon, Grandmother’s Recipes, 113.
15. “Bite Sized,” New Paper, 17 February 2016; “Food: BWB,” Straits Times, 26 June 2015, 7; Tan Hsueh Yun, “Nonya Fillings a Treat,” Straits Times, 14 April 2013, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled, 81.

Further resource
Lea Wee, “Love Grilled Food?” Straits Times, 19 April 1997, 22. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Cookery, Malay
Ethnic foods
Cookery, Singaporean
Cookery, Peranakan