Steamed Fish Parcels with Lemongrass

Steamed fish parcels with lemongrass.

Serves 4

Banana leaves are nature’s alfoil, with a waxy surface that makes them strong and waterproof. (They also make a good umbrella if you are caught in monsoon rain.) In this Javanese recipe, the fish is flavoured with fresh spices and the leaf wrappings themselves, which impart a subtle herbaceous note. Open at the table to release aromatic steam, balmy with lemongrass, and a tender piece of fish.
Trip along the spice routes and you’ll find fish parcels in many cultures. In Thailand, fillets might be infused with spicy coconut milk, in the Philippines with ginger, calamansi juice and pork lard. Eat in a Parsi kitchen and your parcel could contain a coriander mint chutney, or head to Kerala for an onion masala laden with curry leaves.

4 x 150g skinless
white fish fillets
Banana leaves or alfoil,
for wrapping
For the spice paste
4 large red chillies
1 lemongrass stick
2 lime leaves
2cm kencur, galangal or ginger
1cm fresh turmeric or ⅓ teaspoon ground turmeric
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 candlenuts or
5 blanched almonds
1 tablespoon tamarind paste
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon neutral oil
Stir-fried vegetables and chilli sambal, to serve (optional)

Prepare the ingredients for the spice paste: scrape and discard the seeds and surrounding membrane from the chillies and roughly chop. Trim the lemongrass, removing the tough outer leaves, bruise with the handle of a knife, then finely slice. Pull out the central vein from the lime leaves and finely slice into green ribbons. Roughly chop the kencur, fresh turmeric and garlic. Whizz all the ingredients to a paste in a blender. Scrape into a bowl, add the fish fillets and turn to coat.

Wash the banana leaves. You will need eight pieces, each large enough to wrap a fillet. Frozen leaves may be supple enough already, but fresh they crack easily, so soften by holding over a gas flame or hot pan until they slightly wilt and change colour, becoming pliable and easy to work with.
Lay out the leaves in double thickness and sit a fish fillet on each, including all the spice paste. Wrap well as if wrapping a present in paper, securing with bamboo skewers or a ribbon of banana leaf. At this point, you can refrigerate them for up to 4 hours.

Heat the oven to 180°C. Space out the parcels on a baking sheet. Bake for 18 minutes, then rest for 5 minutes before opening at the table. Serve with stir-fried vegetables and sambal, if you like.

Images and text from The Nutmeg Trail by Eleanor Ford, photography by Ola O. Smit.

Murdoch Books, $49.99. Cover illustrations: nutmeg and chilli from rawpixel; cinnamon and star anise from Shutterstock; peppercorns from Creative Market.

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