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.

Top image:

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s