Monthly Archives: October 2015

Tried & Tasted: Cheat’s Spicy Fish Custards

Cooking for three people can get unnecessarily tiresome when I don’t eat meat, my husband expects a surprise every now and again, and our helper craves rice at every meal (even breakfast). No complaints though as she’s happy with the simple fare of her Yangon home eg roselle leaves fried with garlic/onion/chilli.

To add to this I’m too lazy for anything fiddly except when my son and his fiancée drop by for Sunday dinner, and even then, I opt for a stew, roast, or some other one-dish meal like Vietnamese rice paper rolls or sweet & sour pork.

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I blame my lethargy on the haze and humidity. Was it this hot when I was growing up in the 1960s? I cannot remember but most likely not. Back then, the Singapore population was just over 1.6 million against today’s 5.5 million plus we have global warming, not helped by the raging forest fires nearby.

But I digress from my fish custard. The preamble is to explain why I have dishonoured my Nonya heritage by forgoing the traditional coconut or banana leaf wraps. My late grandmother had a sense of humour. She would have twisted my ear and laughed at my shameful attempt to recreate otak-otak (puhlease, we don’t say otah) by using (horrors!) frozen white fish and dumping the ingredients in a baking dish.

My husband who doesn’t know any better, said it was good. Phew! And actually, it tasted fine especially as I didn’t flake the fish. Leaving it in cubes gave the dish more texture. This no-fuss casserole-style dish is an easy way to enjoy fish with the appetising aroma of blended herbs and spices and a hint of banana leaf from the liner.

otak rempah

Ground spices for frying


500g white fish fillets (If using frozen fish, thaw and drain off water. Pat dry with paper towels)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup coconut cream

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons grated palm sugar

8 kaffir lime leaves (daun limau perut)

Spice mix

10-20 dried chillies, soaked in warm water for 20 minutes

1 thumb-sized knob of galangal or 3 teaspoons galangal powder

¾ teaspoon turmeric powder

1 tablespoon coriander powder

1 stalk lemon grass

4 candlenuts or macadamia nuts

1 generous tablespoon prawn paste (belacan)

1 big or 2 medium-sized onions


  1. Cube fish. Chop up if you like it fine. Set aside.
  2. Prep ingredients for grinding by skinning galangal if using fresh root, peel and slice onions, use white bulbous base of lemon grass (about 5cm) and throw the hard root end away. Slice galangal and lemon grass or you’ll get a ‘hairy’ mix after blending.
  3. Grind candlenuts, chillies, and lemon grass. When it’s fairly fine, add onions, prawn paste and powdered spices.
  4. Heat a pan and fry the ground paste in about 3 tablespoons oil till fragrant and glistening.
  5. Turn down heat, add coconut cream and give it a good stir to mix well. Take off the heat and when cool, mix the egg in.
  6. Throw away the hard vein of the kaffir lime leaves, and slice leaves into fine strips.
  7. Mix sugar and salt into spice mix and fish along with a sprinkling of kaffir lime leaves.
  8. Line a baking dish with a banana leaf (scald in hot water first) and fill with fish mixture. Pour enough hot water into the baking tray to reach half way up the dish. Bake for 25 minutes in a pre-heated oven (175˚C).

Note: If using frozen fish, the custard might be a little watery. Gently tip the dish and drain off as much liquid as you can without breaking up the custard. It will dry up as it cools. Or be a purist and use fresh fish – Spanish mackerel (tenggiri) is the usual choice. But taste-wise, frozen works fine when you have a craving for otak and it’s all you have.

kaffir lime leaf

While I was in the mood for fish custard, I decided to make some Hor Mok (the Thai equivalent) in the same lackadaisical way – after all, how much lower could I go? So, I dispensed with the delicate banana leaf cups and slapped everything into another dish for steaming. Again, it’s not as pretty but it makes a dang good side dish without having to cut banana leaves and pin with toothpicks. Just don’t serve it to Thais or fussy bibiks.

otak hor mok

Looks strange, but tastes fine. Presentation needs improvement.

The recipe is slightly modified from Rachel Cooks Thai –

2 medium fillets of a white fish, cubed

Cabbage, shredded

2 Tablespoons red curry paste

1 egg

½ cup coconut milk, chilled

1 teaspoon palm sugar

1 Tablespoon fish sauce

½ cup Thai basil leaves

6 kaffir lime leaves, sliced thinly

1 red chilli padi, sliced thinly

¼ cup coconut cream, for topping

1 Tablespoon rice flour

banana leaves and toothpicks (if you choose to be traditional) or just banana leaf for lining the container


To make banana leaf cups, refer to the step-by-step guide at

  1. Mix the red curry paste, egg, palm sugar, and fish sauce to make a paste. (Rachel blends half the fish, but I didn’t bother to.)
  2. Add the coconut cream and most of the thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves, saving some for the topping. Mix well.
  3. Line your container with a banana leaf, and cover the base with a bed of shredded cabbage and Thai basil leaves. Add the fish cubes and then the custard.
  4. Mix ¼ cup of coconut cream with one tablespoon of rice flour until smooth. Place a spoonful of this thickened cream on the fish custard and sprinkle with the thinly sliced chilli and kaffir lime leaves. (I used just a small dollop, so the custard can be seen, but you’re meant to spread it all over)
  5. Steam for approximately 15 minutes, or until the fish is cooked through. Wrap the pot cover in a tea towel to stop water from dripping and pockmarking the custard.

Ridiculous, Period

If you’re Asian, you would have grown up with an aversion to walking under other people’s underwear (hard to avoid in cities where laundry hangs on bamboo poles from high-rise apartments).


You don’t want water from underpants (even when they’re washed) dripping on your head – yech, bad luck! But even more importantly, you must steer clear of women’s underthings because women menstruate, and that’s super ‘unclean’.


This notion of menstruation being dirty and henceforth sullying all women from puberty to menopause is a part of Asian culture. There are so many taboos surrounding the monthly cycle that women in the old days must have been handicapped for a week of every month.


withered planthand

My mother used to say that when your “friend” visits, women should not touch auspicious plants like the pomegranate, or make certain traditional cakes. The result would be a withered plant and a ruined cake. It sounded like menstruating women turned radioactive.


Male family members were especially protected against the taint of women’s blood. It wasn’t so bad for us in Singapore, but in some places, superstition and even religious beliefs led to poor hygiene as women tried not to dirty or contaminate communal wash areas.


“According to WaterAid, women and girls in some South Asian communities, for instance, are not allowed to use water sources during menstruation and nearly 20% of those interviewed refrained from using latrines during their periods despite having access to them – See more at:


Of course, this seemingly imbecilic taboo must have been created by men as elders, priests and all leaders were mostly male in ancient times. But are there valid reasons, and why do even New Age practitioners advise women not to carry out sacred rituals while menstruating?


Finally, an acceptable explanation when I chanced on an old book in my collection.  Published in 1996 (Piatkus), from Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston, here’s an excerpt:


It is best not to do Space Clearing if you are pregnant, menstruating or have an open flesh wound


Let me say straight away that this is nothing to do with women having ‘the curse’, or anything like that. It is because of the blood element, which can apply to both men and women alike.


In many religions, women are not allowed into temples when they are menstruating. Feminists get indignant at this, but perhaps they wouldn’t if they really understood the underlying reasons. In Bali, it is not just menstruating women who are not allowed into temples but anyone who is bleeding in any way at all.


One reason is that blood attracts lower levels of entities, and they don’t want those entities in the temple because they want to keep it as clean and pure as possible. Western studies of groups of people who go into jungles or into places far from civilization have shown that if ever they are set upon by wild animals, it is the menstruating women they go for first, and their second choice is anyone with an open flesh wound! Exactly the same thing happens in the realms of energy where lower levels of entities are concerned.


Another absolutely different reason why menstruating women in particular are not allowed into temples is because they are not able to handle the high levels of energy in temples while their bodies are involved in the monthly process of internal cleansing. All their energies are turned inwards, and this is a time when their life force is at its lowest ebb. Women lose life-force energy through menstruation in the same way that men lose it through their ejaculation.


Space Clearing is about cleansing externally, and women are not equipped to do this so well at the time of the month they are doing their own internal electromagnetic cleansing. I used to sometimes do Space Clearing when I had my period but I found I got a lesser result and I felt more exhausted afterwards. Nowadays I never do Space Clearing when I have my period, and I certainly wouldn’t do a full-scale consecration ceremony while menstruating.


Similarly, during pregnancy, a woman’s energies are turned inwards because they are in the process of building and nourishing a new life inside. Also, everything that happens to the mother is transmitted directly to the sensitive foetus inside her.


To protect the child and nourish the mother, pregnancy is a time for a woman to have her partner do Space Clearing for her. In ancient cultures women would go into ‘confinement’ during the time they were pregnant, which was for the entire gestation period, not just for the few hours while they were in labour (or for Asians, for a month after delivery).


From the time they conceived they would live in the elevated atmosphere of a specially created place apart from other members of the tribe, to give that new life the best possible opportunity. They knew that the most formative time in a person’s life was the time spent in the womb.


Note: Karen Kingston is updating her book.

“My first book, Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui, has sold over a million copies in 16 languages. There have been so many developments in my space clearing work since then that I am now writing a completely new book that will replace it.”

For information, visit