Malaysian Barramundi

From The Feast Goes On by the Monday Morning Cooking Club (HarperCollins Publishers), photo by Alan Benson Yield:  8 servings
Prep Time:  40 minutes Cook Time:  1 hour 10 minutes

Malaysian Barramundi

"My mom took great pride in her cooking, bustling about the kitchen preparing lunches and dinners with me by her side, peeling and pounding. She is of Chinese descent and when she married my dad, who is a mix of Portuguese, Swiss and Indonesian, she soon mastered the art of making excellent Malaysian Portuguese dishes. I grew up around the aromatic smell of spices. I started cooking when I was young, under my mom’s supervision, preparing basic dishes like fried fish and nasi goreng. The real adventure began when I left home, wanting to impress my friends with authentic home-cooked meals. There were many calls to home and my housemates were delighted to be my guinea pigs. After leaving university, I never stopped cooking and entertaining. I moved to Sydney in 2008 to pursue a PhD in hydrology, and I continued to share my passion for cooking with many friends and later, my partner and greatest fan. In my mom’s kitchen this dish was served for special occasions. I always knew I was in for a treat when she asked me to cut some banana leaves from our backyard tree. Don’t be daunted by the number of ingredients in this spice paste. The results are worth it. It can be made a couple of days ahead and stored in the fridge."--Erwin Jeremiah, contributor to The Feast Goes On

Notes from the Test Kitchen: Barramundi is Australia’s favorite fish. It is also found elsewhere in Asia and in limited supplies in the US. A white-fleshed fish with a flaky texture, it is also known as Asian sea bass. If you can’t find it, sea bass or halibut are good substitutes.

Ingredients

7 to 10 dried red chillies or 2 tablespoons mild red chilli paste (see Notes from the Test Kitchen below)

5 centimeter (2-inch) piece galangal (or substitute with extra ginger),  peeled  and thinly sliced (see Notes from the Test Kitchen below)

5 centimeter (2-inch) piece fresh turmeric,  peeled  and thinly sliced, or 3 teaspoons ground turmeric

2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger

2 lemongrass stems, white part only, thinly sliced (see Notes from the Test Kitchen), or 2 tablespoons lemongrass paste 

1 large red onion, roughly chopped

2 cloves garlic, peeled

500 milliliter (2 cups) coconut milk 

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

½ teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon white vinegar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

4 banana leaves (optional)

8 (200-gram/7-ounce) barramundi fillets (see Notes from the Test Kitchen above)

8 kaffir lime leaves, stem removed, finely shredded 

Instructions

  1. Halve the dried chillies (if using ) and soak in hot water for 5 minutes. Put the galangal, turmeric, ginger and lemongrass in a blender with the onion and garlic. Drain the chillies, squeeze out the excess water, remove and discard the seeds (if you prefer less heat) and add to the blender. Pour in 1 cup of the coconut milk and blend until it is a fine paste.
  2. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Pour the spice paste into the pan and sauté until the oil separates and floats, about 10 minutes. Stir in the rest of the coconut milk, then the sugar, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. There should be a balance between sweet, sour and salty. Simmer, stirring from time to time, until reduced by half and a thick paste forms, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool before using, or refrigerate for several days until needed.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4).
  4. If using the banana leaves, cut to the right size so they are sufficiently large enough to wrap each fish fillet into a parcel. Alternatively, you will need 8 pieces of baking paper, each large enough to wrap one fillet of fish. You will also need 8 slightly larger sheets of foil.
  5. Spread 1 tablespoon of the spice paste on one side of a fish fillet. Sprinkle half a shredded kaffir lime leaf on the banana leaf/baking paper and place the fish on top, paste side down. Spread another spoon of the paste on top of the fish and sprinkle with another half of a shredded lime leaf. Folding the banana leaf/baking paper first, wrap the fish in a neat parcel. Then wrap in the foil to encase the parcel, ensuring the edges are well sealed. Repeat with the remaining fish fillets.
  6. Place the fish parcels on a baking tray and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving and opening the packages.

Kitchen Tips

Notes from the Test Kitchen:

  1. The chemicals in chili peppers that cause that wonderful feeling of heat on the tongue can cause a not-so-wonderful feeling if they get into your eyes—and can share the love with other foods on your menu. To avoid cross-contamination, avoid touching your face or eyes after cutting and trimming hot chilies. Change work surfaces and knives. Some cooks wear plastic gloves.
  2. Lemongrass adds a wonderful hint of lemony flavor and fragrance to your cooking, but you need to peel off and discard the tough outer layers in order to use it. Then cut off the bulb at the root end. Cut the softer white-yellow-green stalk that remains as your recipe directs. You can cut it into chunks or slice in smaller slices to reveal a purplish blush at the interior (slicing on a diagonal works well). Or if you don’t need neat slices, you can place the stalk on a work surface and whack it with the side of a large chef’s knife to crush it and chop it a little more if need be. If you are slicing it and the thin top section becomes too hard to work with, whack it and chop it up.

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