Pepes Ikan Kembung: Steamed & Grilled Mackerel in Banana Leaves

Recipe for a smoky, fragrant mackerel: pepes ikan kembung. The fish is marinated and wrapped in banana leaves, then steamed and grilled.

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Nunuk Sri Rahayu
Nunuk hails from Solo, the historic royal capital and cultural centre of Java, Indonesia. She has been cooking since the age of 12, and also performs and teaches traditional Javanese dance. Her dream is to eventually write her own Indonesian cookbook.

Pepes (pais in Sundanese) is a favourite among the Sundanese people of West Java, and is often thought to be a Sundanese dish. It is also quite popular in other regions of Indonesia, where it’s known by different names such as palai, payeh, pelasan, brengkes, etc.

Pepes refers to the cooking method where the main ingredients are mixed with spices and then wrapped into a small parcel using banana leaves. The parcel is then steamed, and, before serving, grilled until the leaves are slightly burned. Traditionally, this is done over hot charcoal (still the best way), but a non-stick pan or electric oven can also be used. The fragrance of the banana leaves – first steamed and then grilled – will seep into the main ingredients, making the dish very aromatic.

Serve the dish by placing the parcel on a serving plate and open it by tearing the leaves from the center. Only the ingredients inside the wrap can be eaten. Banana leaf lends a fragrant aroma and makes for beautiful presentation, but it’s inedible and has to be discarded after the pepes is enjoyed.

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There are many variations of pepes recipes. Fish is probably the most popular ingredient, but it can be prepared using red or white meat, seafood, tofu, tempeh and vegetables as well. The way the spices are prepared can be different too. Sometimes they are finely blended, sometimes sliced, and sometimes, a mix of both. As there is no frying involved in the cooking process, pepes is definitely a healthy option.

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Pepes Ikan Kembung: Steamed & Grilled Fish in Banana Leaves

Pepes Ikan Kembung: Steamed & Grilled Mackerel in Banana Leaves

  • Author: Nunuk Sri Rahayu
  • Prep Time: 45 minutes
  • Cook Time: 25 minutes
  • Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
  • Yield: 2 1x
  • Category: Fish & Seafood
  • Method: Steaming
  • Cuisine: Indonesian
  • Diet: Halal

Description

This fish recipe, which uses Indian mackerel, is prepared using a technique known as pepes. The fish is marinated and wrapped in banana leaves, then steamed, and then grilled for a fragrant, smoky flavour.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 500 gr (2 pcs) kembung fish (Indian Mackerel)
  • 7 shallots, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped 
  • 4 roasted candlenuts, chopped 
  • 4 cm fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped 
  • 4 cm fresh ginger, peeled and chopped 
  • Salt to taste 
  • 1 tsp tamarind juice 
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass, bruised and cut to 4 cm pcs
  • 2 fresh or dried salam leaves
  • 12 bird’s eye chillies 
  • 1 bunch (around 50 gr) kemangi leaves (Indonesian basil), (discard the stem)
  • Fresh banana leaves for wrapping, wiped clean 
  • Toothpick to secure the wrapping

Pepes Ikan Kembung ingredients


Instructions

  1. Clean and wash the fish thoroughly, sprinkle with salt and lime juice to remove the fishy smell, set aside.
  2. Using a blender or a food processor, blend to a smooth paste the shallots, garlic, candlenut, turmeric and ginger.
  3. Transfer the paste to a bowl, add salt and tamarind juice. Mix well.
  4. Pat the fish dry, transfer to a plate, and spread half of the spice paste evenly all over the fish. Set aside.

    Spread spice paste on the fish

  5. To prepare the wrapping: take 2 pcs of banana leaves. Place the first horizontally on a wide table, and place the second vertically on top, to form a cross-like shape.
  6. Place about 10g kemangi leaves, 3 bird’s eye chillies, 1 salam leaf and 1 pc of lemongrass on top of the banana leaves.

    Place spices and herbs on the banana leaves

  7. Add the fish on top of the herbs and then add another layer of kemangi leaves (10-15g) and 3 chillies on top of the fish.

    Place the remaining herbs on the fish

  8. Fold the banana leaves to wrap the fish, making sure there are no holes or gaps. Secure the ends of the leaves using a toothpick.

  9. Do the same thing for the other fish.
  10. Keep both parcels in the refrigerator for 15 minutes to marinate.
  11. Steam the wrapped fish over high heat for 25 minutes.
  12. Before serving, grill each parcel on a non-stick pan or oven until the banana leaves are brittle and nicely browned.

    Pepes Ikan Kembung: final dish


Notes

  • For this recipe, I used ikan kembung or Indian Mackerel, because it’s readily available in the market. Indian Mackerel is also very tasty, doesn’t have too many bones, and the meat does not fall apart when cooked. Feel free to substitute it with other types of fish such as carp, pomfret or tilapia. 
  • Banana leaves can be substituted with aluminium foil if not available.

Keywords: Healthy, Grilled, Spicy

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